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No Time for Second Chances [message #62484] Fri, 27 July 2012 23:04 Go to next message
Dr. Bender is currently offline  Dr. Bender
Messages: 1232
Registered: January 2005
Location: 47°9′S 126°43...
Before we start, a friendly warning:

The following story is about Shadowrunners, essentially criminals for hire in a borderline distopian future. This is an R18+ black and grey morality story which will include sex, violence and occasionally orksploitation death metal. If you don't like that sort of thing, don't read this.

If you're still here, welcome to 2065 and have fun chummers.

Note: as always, please don't reply here, there is now a discussion thread in the Library Comments section of the forums.


The statement in my signature is false.

[Updated on: Fri, 27 July 2012 23:10]

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Re: No Time for Second Chances [message #62485 is a reply to message #62484] Fri, 27 July 2012 23:05 Go to previous messageGo to next message
Dr. Bender is currently offline  Dr. Bender
Messages: 1232
Registered: January 2005
Location: 47°9′S 126°43...
No Time for Second Chances
By Dr. Bender

Chapter 1

Looking back over my shoulder, I tucked my shoulder-length crimson hair back behind my pointed ear to give me a clear view of the city far below. The air was filled with drones of all shapes and sizes going about their nightly business while the labyrinth of streets weaving their way between skyscrapers and arcologies was choked with traffic, nearly blotted out by the smog trapped in the lower atmosphere. The wind made sure my hair didn't stay in place for long, so I turned back to the ferrocrete wall in front of me and continued to climb.

The infiltration suit I was wearing hugged my body like a second skin, reducing my heat, sweat and other biological emissions close to zero. Gecko pads were built into the hands and soles, the so-called 'weak' electronic forces they utilized making me cling to the side of the building like a human spider straight out of a graphic novel. My magic made me invisible to regular sight, technological sensors, trideo cameras and even the watcher spirits that glided past patrolling the astral plane.

Above me loomed the giant corporate logo of Zaibatsu Consortium Inc., a AA corporation only one step away from taking a seat on the Corporate Council. Using the lower curve of the 'C' as a ledge, I knelt and uncoiled a few feet of woven monomolecular climbing rope from the spool on my belt, affixing the line to the building with a shot from the pneumatic, fast-drying, glue gun kept in a holster at my hip. Flicking down the opaque AR visor over my eyes, I made a quick commlink call via our hacker's secure channel.

"What does it look like, Surtur?" I asked, murmuring into the subvocal microphone taped to my throat.

A screen seemingly opened a foot in front of my face which was in fact an AR overlay provided by my goggles. It depicted the face of a god-like figure made of molten gold and fire, our hacker's personally programmed icon in the Matrix. Luckily for us, Surtur was as white-hot in the Matrix as his avatar suggested, making even our commlink calls virtually untraceable.

"All green," he informed me, "beginning the countdown now."

A green timer appeared in my view as I took my place on the edge of the precipice, my back on the outside world as I shut everything else out of my head but what I was about to do. Quickly checking my harness for the zillionth and final time, I breathed, feeling the pressure of the suit on my breast as it heaved, and centred myself. The moment the counter went red, I held my breath, spread my arms, and hopped into space.

The line stretched as the harness took my weight, controlling the dive as I rotated so that I was falling head first. Below me, I watched an entire strip of what looked to be just more opaque black glass open panel by panel, revealing an open, nearly empty, floor beyond. Building a skyscraper as tall as Zaibatsu Seattle Tower posed many challenges, not the least of which was the effects of high wind; by opening a gap between floors, the automated systems reduced the pressure on the building and thus structural stress as well. After all, it's hard to concentrate during a power meeting when the room is rolling like a ship at sea.

When the line suddenly locked, I tucked my torso up to my legs as the arrested momentum flung me through one of the gaps. Rolling with the impact for several feet, I finally came to a stop on my feet thanks again to the Gecko pads, the cord disintegrating into nothingness behind me as the panels shut, cutting off the wind and plunging me into darkness.

Unlike most people, the darkness was where I was happiest; it made me smile as I moved on using the untrasound image provided by my goggles to find the right maintenance hatch. Naturally, with strategically placed gaps between sets of floors, the environmental, safety and elevator systems were all tied to the four corners of the building. The hatch in question led to a ladder sandwiched between the inner wall and the frame of the express elevator shaft that led to the uppermost floors that ascended the entire tower in measured stages, allowing personnel a few moments of rest and reducing the chances of fatal accidents. A sign describing proper safety procedures was even attached to the inside of the hatch, giving me a warm, fuzzy, feeling about how much the corporation cared for even the lowliest of employees.

Not. I quickly noted that the space provided was hardly big enough for a grown human man, let alone an Ork. A Troll attempting to squeeze through would need rubber bones; but that was all part of the traditionalist pro-human Japanese corporation's sthick of keeping the minorities in the underclass. I was just grateful to be an Elven woman slender enough to climb through gracefully without effort, though the presence of the emergency staircase right next to the hatch, separated by foot-thick ferrocrete walls annoyed me just for the blatant exclusion of the professional and lower classes.

The next part was more fun than jumping off the building. Taking the glue gun, I unreeled some more line, hooked it onto the grapple attachment and loaded it into the barrel. As the express elevator shot past, I jumped out into space once again and fired the grapple upwards, where it adhered to the elevator and pulled me up with it. The brakes on the line spool measured my acceleration once again, preventing me from getting whiplash and pulling me up so that I could pry open the door to the floor underneath and slip through. Naturally, Surtur was in control of the elevator, so I arrived just where I was supposed to be: in a hallway, surrounded by dark, empty, offices, cubicles and Total Emersion Capsules for Matrix workers.

Even those who work in Total Emersion need bathroom breaks, however, so I slipped into a bathroom just in case one of the security guards decided he needed to go for a walk. Not that he could see me with my spell still up but there were a million little things that might give an invisible person away, like air movement, breathing or smell, no matter how feint. In a world where magic exists, security guards are trained to be more curious than common sense might suggest, particularly those employed by a notoriously paranoid organization like Zaibatsu.

My backpack was sealed with strips of material much like the Gecko pads on my suit, except the only thing they were good at sticking to was each other; similar to pre-awakening Velcro but silent. Inside was my formal commlink, a sleek chromed designer accessory with little armatures that threaded through my hair to sit neatly and unobtrusively behind my ears with small diamond chains that mimicked earrings. I turned the bag inside out to reveal the inner lining and transform it into a fashionable leather handbag, into which I deposited the more obvious burglary devices like the glue gun and the cable spooler. The goggles joined them, replaced with contact lenses with similar functions. A quick spell altered the infiltration suit into a pretty black backless evening dress and matching high heels; complete with modest gold and diamond jewellery and a flip hairstyle that showed off my commlink and covered the left half of my face with flowing red curls. The jewelled choker around my neck was mainly there to conceal the subvocal microphone since the dress I'd chosen to mimic had little up top to conceal anything, mainly so that most people would remember my cleavage rather than my face.

Taking a deep breath, I centred myself, allowing mana to flow through my skin and bones. As a Mystical Adept, I not only had the ability to cast spells but channel mana to enhance my body. With training, I'd learnt to subtly alter my facial features as well as darken or lighten my natural skin tone, giving me the ability to create simple disguises quickly and effectively. Lightening my skin to a nice creamy Caucasian shade, I made a few alterations to my face, giving myself a more Eurasian appearance.

With that, I was ready to ascend the staircase and emerge onto light, warmth and music that suffused the uppermost two floors. Half the space was devoted to the luxury offices of the high and mighty, the other half was reserved for corporate functions and transportation. The open receiving area was filled with people in suits and formal wear from all over the globe, from traditional Kimonos to Vashoon Island power suits. I slipped into the crowd unnoticed and cautiously dropped the invisibility spell, becoming just another high class joygirl there to spice up the atmosphere.

"Boxcar sends his compliments," Surtur passed on the message from my boyfriend, who was probably patched into the surveillance feed via our Decker. Still, it gave me a warm glow to know that my boyfriend appreciated what he had.

"Paint the target," I whispered back, maintaining my professionalism.

An AR overlay projected onto my contacts highlighted one of the hosts, Dr. Shozumi Nika (Japanese last name first), head of the Magitech Research Department. Corporate brochures expounded that the division 'strived to combine magical and technological achievements to bring about a better world'. Better for who was the question, Zaibatsu Corporation Inc. was the answer. Not that I particularly cared why Mr. Johnson had hired us, just that there was a nice, fat, credstick waiting for my return which I intended to collect.

Looking at Dr. Shozumi made me wonder if she'd indulged her vanity and subjected herself to some genetic treatments. She was far too gorgeous to be entirely natural for a woman with a PhD, a body she showed off with a curve-hugging silver fish-scale dress that shimmered in the light, matching her grey eyes and bringing out her peach-tone skin and lustrous straight black hair. The diamond on her engagement ring sparkled alongside her wedding band, which struck me as ironic considering what I was about to do.

Making my way near to her, I loitered unobtrusively while I waited for her to extricate herself from the conversation she was involved in with some of her co-workers. Luckily, I managed to position myself so that she nearly bumped into me, giving me an excuse to grab the hand holding her drink, ostensibly to prevent it from spilling. "Oh, excuse me," I apologized with a smile and a slight bow, my Japanese etiquette lessons paying off.

I could see in her grey almond eyes widen as she immediately took an interest in me, her eyes flicking to where my hand was lingering before roaming down my body. My pale skin contrasted well with hers. She wore purple nail polish and lipstick while I favoured red. We contrasted and matched, which was the way I'd designed my outfit from the beginning. Her return smile came easily along with her polite bow. "No, forgive me, I didn't see you there. I'm not sure we've met before."

Removing my hand reluctantly, I used my commlink to exchange virtual business cards with hers. It was an old and very Japanese formality, updated for the modern age. In Neo-Tokyo, a real paper card would be expected but in Seattle the traditions were a little more lax. Of course, my card was a total fabrication but the omission of any business title spoke volumes to her about my function. Corporate sponsored 'escorts' of both genders don't use business titles, particularly in Japan, the profession is accepted and universal in their culture but also shunned in the time honoured 'treat it as if it doesn't exist' way, even while you're bonking your brains out. "Mr. Shozumi sends his regards," I added with a downcast look as the files transferred.

Our legwork had given us a clear picture of what the relationship between Mr. Shozumi and Dr. Shozumi was: entirely for professional convenience. Being traditionalist, Japanese corporations find it hard to accept any woman in a high level managerial position no matter how talented without a man to back her. On the other side of the coin, male businessmen aren't respected if they don't have a wife with kids and a stable of mistresses. As such, Dr. Shozumi's ambition outweighed her gender preference at some point when she agreed to marry a man and bare children through 'wimps', mindless wombs made of her DNA that would be recycled after birth. The peace between husband and wife was kept with little gifts, like sharing prostitutes.

Dr. Shozumi bit her lower lip subconsciously as the full import of what I was suggesting sank in. "If you don't mind me saying so, you are quite beautiful. Have you had work done at the clinic or..."

I shook my head and smiled again, glad to be able to partially tell the truth for once. "I'm fortunate to be naturally blessed for the most part. I was lucky enough to go through the Vivarace Awakened Training Program."

That was code for 'I'm a Physical Adept'. Magical abilities manifest in various ways, some people see the astral, cast spells and summon spirits while some channel mana through their bodies to do superhuman stunts and everything in between. The Vivarace training program was a European school that specialized in training Adepts whose abilities enhanced their social skills. On one hand, it wasn't a lie that I was perfectly natural without a shred of cybernetics, bioware or gene therapy to my name but I'm not a pure Physical Adept.

Naturally, my backstory was designed to pique her interest in me even more, which succeeded charmingly. "Caroline, a very lovely name, have you seen the executive offices here before?"

"I haven't had the pleasure," I answered, flirting casually.

She grinned. "Come on, let me show you around."

We knew where she'd take me. Each of the luxury offices comes with a secret adjoining apartment, ostensibly for use after late nights at the office. In reality, executives like the convenience of having their joyboys and girls delivered discretely by Yakuza affiliates, not to mention hosting the occasional visitor. All of which was perfectly legal thanks to corporate extraterritoriality, on Zaibatsu soil the CEO's word was law.

Her office was typical for the head of a research department, with artfully tasteful depictions of magical formula mixed with optical chip designs and Awakened plant life to show the harmonious application of magic, technology and nature. Her large polished black desk even sat before a small rock garden complete with a peaceful water feature. The room itself was a stark contrast, mixing dark grey tiles in working areas with lush pristine white carpets in the more comfortable areas where she could schmooze with VIPs. The walls were also mostly stark white except for the minibar, which was where the concealed door to the bedroom was located.

Much like her office, the bedroom was another stark contrast. The doctor certainly had a thing for purple and pink, the large bed in the middle of the room was festooned with royal purple sheets that depicted bright pink Sakura blossoms. Here the heated tile floor was like polished obsidian with lush red carpets for colour and light grey walls with indirect lighting making everything appear soft. One of the walls was composed of two-way glass, allowing those on the bed to look out over the Seattle skyline.

"Have some Champaign with me," she ordered, exchanging her class for a new one at the minibar before pouring it herself and stepping through the secret door to hand it to me. I took the glass with a bow of gratitude and let her watch me sip while the door closed automatically.

"You seem tense," I observed in a low voice between sips, making a show of savouring the taste. She took a short breath when I reached out and moved her bangs out of her face, the tips of my fingers stroking her silky skin.

"Remember, you need to maintain skin-to-skin contact with her for at least 7 minutes," Surtur reminded me needlessly. Nika's implanted headware memory could only be accessed via her special Skinlink system, which carried a signal across the surface of her skin. As long as we touched, Surtur could hack the doctor's headware to get the paydata we needed. It wasn't going to be a problem.

Taking a sip of the Champaign, I stepped forward and tilted her head back slightly, leaning over her as I used my tongue to dribble the liquid into her open mouth. She responded, her hands roaming as we began kissing, stealing tiny little licks from each other's mouths as we explored each other.

The doctor got bold quickly, undoing the knot behind my neck and allowing the top half of my dress to fall around my hips, exposing my naked breasts for her to fondle. In return, I pulled her slowly to the edge of the bed, letting her slip out of her shoes as we walked but keeping mine on. I had to peel her dress off down her body, mercilessly taking advantage of her trapped hands for a moment to tease her nipples with my lips, which made her giggle in delight. Then I got serious and began licking in earnest, stealing her breath away.

Gently laying her down on her back, I kissed and nibbled my way down her naked body, parting her legs to reveal that she shaved quite thoroughly. As bisexuality goes, I lean slightly on the heterosexual side, not that I'd ever been short of lesbian lovers. As such, my ministrations to her were well practiced, and from the sound of her moans I wasn't about to have any complaints.

I was in the middle of letting Nika bask in the afterglow of her third multiple orgasm when Surtur suddenly appeared in my view again. "Harpy! Guards at the door! Move!"

He was a moment too late, the secret door exploding in as the black-armoured Scorpion Guard made their own way into the room. I let the Fashion spell drop, my infiltration suit reverting to its actual form as I found the safest place to be the eye of the storm and roundhouse-kicked the first guard in the head with enough force to warp his helmet and shatter the visor. Grabbing his hand as he was spun around, I pulled the trigger, spraying bullets in the enemy's general direction and forcing them to either take cover or trust in their Kevlar. They took the former option, which was wise considering the guard's battle rifle chewed up what remained of the wall, one of the bullets even punching the fridge across the room. Moving at speeds that only my magic allowed me reach, I took the guard's sidearm and blew out the windows, only hearing Nika's screams just before I leapt out into the night, barely remembering to grab my handbag on the way out.

Flying drones buzzed past me as I fell, forcing me to dodge flying metal and rotor blades as the guards above me opened fire. Several drones were tagged, spinning out of control, ramming into other drones when the autopilot tried to avoid collision and even exploding around me. Pressing my arms and legs to my sides and holding my legs together, I activated my suit's glider mode, allowing the adhesive pads to unfurl the webbing between my limbs and body that would allow me to control my descent somewhat. This bought me time to produce the glue gun from my handbag, which I triggers by slamming the muzzle into a passing VTOL drone and pulling the trigger, adhering the gun itself to the chassis of the drone and providing me a handhold.

The drone didn't take the sudden addition of my momentum well as I dragged it down, nor did it respond well to the bullets the Scorpion Guard were still sending my way. It started beeping manically as black smoke boiled from the engines, forcing me to let go. It jerked upwards, sripping the rotor blades from another drone and sending both crashing into the Zaibatsu building. It had served my purpose, however, letting me aim properly for the slope of the nearby Renraku Arcology.

One of the great features of Ares Macrotechnology Gecko Gloves™ other than being perfect for base jumping and recreational climbing is the nifty feature that lets you turn the pad's adhesion off at any time with a quick commlink command; which was why I was able to slide down the steep slope of the arcology feet first rather than smash my face against the wall. The Scorpion Guard didn't give up so easy, however, as I looked over my shoulder to see combat drones crest the tip of the pyramid, twin linked Vindicator miniguns whirring a moment before opening fire. Hails of tracer bullets ripped furrows in the building around me, spraying glass and dust into the air. Shifting my weight, I weaved in a zig-zag pattern to put off their aim, my brain racing as I saw the edge of the roof coming closer and closer.

Hitting the edge of the building, I uncoiled my legs like taut springs, throwing myself across the gap in the streets. Fortunately, the side I'd landed on ended at an alleyway, beyond which I could see a the rooftops of a cluster of apartment buildings which were a maze of steel ventilation ducts, air conditioners, aerials, elevators, landing pads and drone refuelling points. Leaping over the gap, I rolled across the rain-slick tar and came to my feet running, flat out, my arms pumping madly as I kicked into overdrive.

The combat drones continued to fire as I slid beneath one cluster of pipes before vaulting over another, changing direction suddenly by grabbing one of the aerials as a handhold. My body was a trained instrument, honed to the cutting edge then pushed over it by magic. I ran up walls, hopped over obstacles and crashed through billboards trying to avoid the drone's targeting systems but I knew I was being herded. It wasn't until I saw the gap between this block and the next that I realized where they were trying to lead me.

I was still trying to think of a way out, another exit strategy, a few meter away from the edge when the black helicopters rose before me, Zaibatsu logos emblazoned on the sides as the Scorpion Guards levelled their guns at me, the beams of their laser sights illuminated clearly by the smog haze, connecting their guns with my chest as I skidded to a halt. I was blinded when their searchlights flared, forced to shield my eyes both them and the wind from the rotorblades.

"This is Lieutenant Yamato Kaneda of the Zaibatsu Conglomorate Special Security Forces," a voice said over a loud speaker, probably from a cushy office back in Zaibatsu HQ. "Intruder, you are hereby under corporate arrest under section 9 of UCAS law governing the extraterritoriality agreement of..."

The railgun shot came out of nowhere, the of the projectile's supersonic boom blowing me off my feet. The main impact turned the lead helicopter inside out and reduced anyone inside to dog food. After which, the shot cleaved through the cockpit of the second, killing the pilots instantly and spinning the tail around into the third, which careened out of control, tagging the side of the building before flipping upside down and falling out of sight. Moments later a fireball rose into the sky, bathing me in its heat. Someone on one of the helicopters must have been controlling the drones, which simply floated harmlessly in the air on autopilot without anyone giving them orders.

"WOOOOOOOOO! DID YOU SEE THAT? DID YOU SEE THAT?!?!?!??????" Crazy69, the team Rigger, shouted through my commlink loud enough that I wanted to rip the earpiece out. I could hear the distinctive electric 'voooooom' of his amazingly quiet GMC Banshee only just before is descended from the sky, the wingless flying tank held aloft though some unholy combination of ground effect, VTOL and aeronautical wizardry.

The side door of the aircraft opened to reveal Boxcar looking down on me in concern. He reached out and too my hand, hauling my light frame easily into the passenger compartment. I saw the world lurch outside as the Banshee took off again moments before the door closed, plunging us into eerie stillness.

"You all right?" Boxcar asked me, holding my face in his hands.

"I'm fine," I whispered, looking up into his deep blue eyes as I caressed his hand. I was breathing hard and it wasn't from running.

The Banshee jumped suddenly, like a car going over a speed bump, throwing me forward and pushing us both over, with me landing on top of Boxcar on the floor.

"Sorry," Crazy69 apologized through the commlink, "just hit a slipstream. Sailish airspace here we come!"

Boxcar's mama didn't raise a fool; he took advantage of that moment to kiss me. The infiltrator suit was thin enough that I could almost feel him against my skin, my every nerve begging for him. His manhood hardened as my hips ground against him even through the combat fatigues he was wearing under his armoured longcoat. "You know we've got an hour until we reach the safe house," I whispered into his ear before nibbling the lobe.

"Stop reading my mind," he teased affectionately as he started to remove my clothing. There wasn't much foreplay, we were both too eager, so I barely had time to admire how well endowed my lover was before my legs were wrapped around his waist as he took me. I was so ready that even his girth slid inside me easily, his thrusts quickly propelling me to heights of ecstasy as we moved in harmony. Our pulses synchronized as we moved faster and faster, the pleasure building towards a magnificent crescendo. He held me on the razor's edge for several moments, his wonderful cruelty prolonging my agony before...

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>>>>>[Session terminated automatically at 08:20 per user request. Have a nice day.]<<<<<

"FRAG ALL THE STEAMING PILES OF DREK!" I swore at the top of my lungs as I was dumped from the simsense movie moments before Soaring Harpy was about to climax. Believe me, if you think getting cock blocked is bad, try being brought close to orgasm as a woman but missing out, I almost threw my commlink across the room which would have been disastrous for innumerable reasons.

What was worse was that I'd done it to myself. After dragging myself out of bed in my 4 by 10 studio apartment, I'd thrown some soy-based cereal bricks into a bowl with soymilk for breakfast and showered in record time, leaving me with a spare 20 minutes. So I'd slotted my new simsense chip, Soaring Harpy: Retrograde 8 Newkama Uncut Edition, for a quick preview before I had to go to work. Little did I know that the timer I'd set so that I wouldn't miss the airbus for work would cut me off moments before the end of the second sex scene.

Getting up out of my chair, uttering a string of curses, I made sure my shirt was tucked in and my tie still straight before adjusting my pants to accommodate what I can only describe as a raging boner before putting the simsense chip back in its case and stashing it under my mattress. Not that it was illegal, not like BTL (Better Than Life) chips, just embarrassing and not only because it was porn.

I still didn't understand most of the title. Soaring Harpy was the name of the heroine, so that was obvious, but 'Retrograde' seemed like it was tacked on by the same marketing consultant who thought with the plethora of action sequels flooding the market, a new IP had to have some sort of number in it to compete. Uncut means the sex is there in full force where the theatrical release would stop at kissing. Newkama is the embarrassing part.

See, simsense has a lot of protocols that help a movie define itself to its target audience. Most simsense users will stick to characters of their own gender. If they get curious, they might try an opposite gender character for a cheap thrill but most ordinary playback modules don't translate the signal between genders very well, usually by design. Despite the gender and sexuality revolution, people were still skittish when it came to things that might threaten their own preconceptions. The label 'Newkama' comes from the 'Newkama Playback Protocol', which instructs compatible playback devices on appropriate sense translations between genders. This enables a man or woman to feel the sensations of a member of the opposite sex at close to 100% accuracy, the margin of error being the same as for simsense between the same genders.

Yes, the rest of my secret stash are also Newkama editions.

In 2065, they say that being transgendered isn't a big deal, much like they say that ethnicity is no longer a big deal having been superseded by metavariation. Why worry about the black guy sitting next to you on the bus when the guy behind you is an 8-foot tall Troll that can break both of you with one hand and take an anti-tank round to the chest? And that's not counting Elves, Orks, Dwarves, Vampires, Ghouls, Dragons, Pixies or the hundreds of other metasapient critters wandering the Sixth World after the Awakening of 2011.

Don't you fragging believe what they say. Genetech might be poised to make becoming a full woman quicker, easier and cheaper than ever before, heck if you want to be a Swedish cowgirl (the kind with udders) the newest cutting edge tech can do that too for a price, but people who knew you before are still going to at least look at you funny. If you happen to work for a Japanese megacorporation like I do, you might as well commit hari-kari rather than endure the pain and degradation of being kicked out onto the street. People might be more 'enlightened and open' than ever before in human history but considering how bigoted and prejudiced they used to be, that's not saying much.

So it was that I walked out into the hallway of my apartment block feeling like drek on a stick and fell in with the rest of the crowd moving towards the landing platform. Shiawase corporate policy says that an employee must wear a suit at all times while on duty or moving to and from work. I hate wearing my Shiawase Vashoon Island brand suits; they fit like straightjackets and cost a fortnight's pay from the corporate store, putting a serious dent into my savings every time I had to visit the tailor.

It wasn't just the Awakening that had done a number on the world, reducing governments to a shell of their former selves and forcing corporations to take a greater role. The Crash of '29 had wiped most of the records of what pre-Awakened society had been like, eliminating great swathes of human knowledge in a single blow. Since then, the world had come close to being taken over by body-snatching bug spirits, blown up by insane mages, warped by a twisted AI and more. Crash 2.0 was a fresh memory, leaving millions of dead in its wake. I'd survived by a stroke of luck, having slept through to wake up to an eerie silence as the information hub of the world was simply gone. The new wireless Matrix was up within months but it had been a tense time for everyone.

Of all the countries in the world, Australia wasn't the worst off but it was low down the totem pole. When magic came back in 2011, the Outback changed. My father said before then, the Outback had been dangerous for the unwary and stupid. Then nature itself rose against us, driving the survivors into walled enclaves or close to the major cities. Paranormal animals and hostile free spirits are bad enough but then the unnatural mana storms engulfed large parts of the land, including laying siege to Sydney. I could see the mana storm raging over the blue mountains from the landing pad as I boarded the VTOL airbus bound for the Shiawase Tower in the CBD. I took my assigned seat, the same one I'd occupied for the last fifteen years on the commute to and from work without variation. HR didn't like it when you altered your routine, doing so would always end up with a man coming around to your cubicle to ask embarrassing questions.

Nobody talked, not even the guy I'd been sitting next to for years. Nobody ever talked; we all worked in separate divisions and led separate lives. Most started their work day on board the airbus, checking e-mails, typing documents or reading reports they needed to start the day. Jacking into the Matrix was prohibited on board the airbus in case of emergency, though I suspected they didn't want anyone trying to hijack the controls out of boredom either. Similarly, simsense was out of the question, so I ended up running my favourite AR game, 'Urban Combat Biker 2064', as the airbus weaved through the jungle of skyscrapers.

With Sydney hemmed in by the mana storms, there were only two places the city could expand: out to sea and up. High rise buildings dominated the landscape, most interconnected by skyways. Landing pads had become a necessity to get around the city in any reasonable length of time, the streets far below dangerous, choked with debris, traffic and often infested with critters and criminals. Sydney Harbour Bridge was a good example, overrun with squatter's shacks built by the SINless. The sea was only slightly safer, with the occasional Megadon cruising north, though managing to earn a place on a Proteus Arkoblock was the dream of many workers, out of reach for the vast majority.

I found myself thinking about the start of Soaring Harpy. It was good in that cheesy B-grade action flick sort of way. Complete bulldrek, of course, Harpy should have caught a few hundred bullets just for starters and Skinlink doesn't work though skin to skin contact (though it was a nice excuse for the lesbian sex scene) just for starters. The only bits that annoyed me was the Zaibatsu Conglomerate obviously being a Shiawase expy and the stupid Gecko Glove product placement in the middle of the action scene. I was definitely looking forward to restarting the second sex scene from the beginning, the actress playing Soaring Harpy was good. Though, considering the guy playing Boxcar's raw masculinity, she probably hadn't had to act much. I know I wouldn't have.

The airbus had to circle the Shiawase tower once before landing on pad #4. Everyone hustled to get off and get to work early, vying for brownie points. I was still feeling sour as I walked past the AR billboards that surrounded the main entrance, advertising everything from Shiawase soycaf brands to Shiawase life insurance. Naturally, the prices were all in Shiawase corporate script.

Let me break down this bulldrek economics for you. Shiawase is a triple-A megacorporation with a seat on the Corporate Council. As such, they have their own internal currency, Shiawase corporate script, which is different from the nuyen everyone else in the world uses (except other corps with their own corporate script). Corporate script has two exchange rates: preferred client and outside trader. Preferred clients get to exchange script at the full exchange rate, outside traders use a greatly reduced exchange rate. Employees are paid entirely in corporate script and NONE of us are preferred clients. Of course, only Shiawase stores accept Shiawase script... are you getting the picture?

To buy Soaring Harpy: Retrograde 8, if I didn't want to take a big hit on my paycheck, I had a few options. First, I could download a pirate copy, if I wanted to risk being traced and fined or exposing my brain or commlink to viruses, it's an option. Call me sappy but I prefer paying a reasonable price for services rendered anyway. Next option, pay the outside trader a boatload of my money to exchange my rightful earnings into nuyen. Over my dead body. No way in hell was I going to get preferred client access either. For anyone else, that left one alternative: dealing with a fixer who could trade Shiawase corporate script for goods that could be unloaded for nuyen who would give a better exchange rate to encourage business; still a hit on the paycheck but nowhere near as bad as long as you don't mind dealing with the grey market.

Finally, there was my way. The thing about being 44 and still single is that you don't have a lot of crap to waste your money on. 2 years ago, I invested some of that money in my own business, creating a small time banking company and investment brokerage that also dabbled in escrow services, owned and operated by me, myself and I with a bit of help from my lawyer, Chester. Essentially, I became my own financial fixer through Heterodyne Financial Solutions Ltd., converting corporate scrip to goods, goods to stock portfolios and stocks to nuyen. I kept my client list small, automated as much of the processes as possible using smart programs and expert systems and kept my hand on the rudder at all times.

I wasn't exactly making a killing but the figures were promising. I'd spread the word discreetly to selected Shiawase employees about the services HFS was providing and now I even had managers using the brokerage, which gave me leverage if anyone tried to shut me down internally. Until the men in black suits knocked on my door, however, I was going to assume that I was too small time for anyone important to worry about. Fortunately, I had Chester in my corner as well; he'd made a career out of punching above his weight.

We had to wait ten minutes for an empty elevator and by the time it arrived, there were enough of us that we had to pack into it like sardines. I'd wound up in the middle of the press, so I had to squeeze my way out when we got to level 101. Luckily I arrived at my full immersion pod on time, avoiding the scrutiny of HR for another day. Stepping into the capsule, I inserted my commlink into the hardline connection port, lay down on the soft cushions as the pod reclined into sitting position and inserted the plug from my commlink into the datajack located behind my ear, connecting my brain directly into the Matrix.

The real world gave way to a blandly mundane unreal world. The accounting division's virtual office looked like an endless room packed with grey cubicles. E-mails and other transactions were represented by letters that fluttered through the air just below the ceiling. The architecture was good but minimalist. The textures looked and felt real but most of the assets were re-used. Every cubicle was the same, copy-pasted nearly infinitely. Even our working avatars were the same; androgynous, featureless, suited workers with prominent nametags pinned to our chests. The managers that roamed between cubicles, making sure everyone was behaving, actually had faces and wore better-looked, more comfortable, suits. Of course, all the managers were Japanese, so they were universally short and dark-haired anyway.

Yes, some suits are more comfortable than others even in the Matrix where your clothing (and everything else) is limited only by your imagination. Shiawase could have programmed standard avatars with comfortable suits but people in uncomfortable clothes are statistically more productive.

Sitting down in my cubicle, there was nothing to do but get to work. Each cubicle is like a bubble, job lists come in through my in tray, completed forms go out through my out tray. All other ingoing and outgoing traffic was carefully monitored and logged, my use of time recorded for later analysis. Any drop below peak efficiency levels would incur a visit from management or HR. Drop below a certain threshold and I'd be assigned a Corporate Rehabilitation Therepist to re-indoctrinate me into the Shiawase corporate spirit and culture.

My job was mind numbingly simple. Read industry reports, highlight possible opportunities and threats, speculate on financial trends, make recommendations and otherwise eliminate and process the sea of useless data that clogged the Matrix into a coherent picture of the world. Higher level managers would theoretically read my reports along with those from my fellow analysts and base their decisions on that information. They never did and I kept a running total in my head of how much nuyen Shaiwase had lost because of managerial arrogance over the last 15 years. It was now in nine figures.

We all emerged from the immersion pods 2 hours later on out scheduled exercise break but there still wasn't time to talk. Our Health and Welfare Officer, an annoyingly perky and upbeat petite blonde, made us jog around the room for exactly five minutes before making sure everyone got back to work. Another 2 hours later, we all emerged again desperate for the relief of our well deserved half hour lunch break.

Of course, the Shiawase cafeteria doesn't provide food for free; you have to pay for it with Shiawase corporate script like every other Shiawase employee store. At least the prices were reasonable and the food slightly more acceptable than the usual soy-junk you'd find at your local Stuffer Shack. The cafeteria also had a nice view of the Sydney skyline, several potted plastic plants and a peaceful Japanese rock garden for zen contemplation.

"God," Amanda complained, stretching her back and shoulders as I brought my tray over to our regular table. "I don't know what my body's doing while I'm jacked in but it's twisting itself into knots lately."

"Your meatbod can't move while you're jacked in," Neville answered absently, distracted by an annoying AR ad that looked like a cartoon bumblebee with a wide grin and a sign that said 'Buy Honeybee Honey now for that rich sweet golden taste!' He was trying to swat it with an anti-spam filter but the program had some seriously slick evasion algorithms. "The carrier signal supersedes motor control functions; that's why nobody ever hurts themselves when they're jacked in."

Amanda gave him a 'do you think I'm an idiot' look. "I know that!"

It wasn't precisely true, you could move your meat body in a very inelegant way with some effort, like thrashing your leg or arm, but it took concentration. "Sorry, am I interrupting a lover's tiff?" I asked as I sat down, making both of them blush. I still wasn't sure if Amanda and Neville were perfect for each other or too much alike. Both were slightly on the pudgy side, both were around 30, both wore glasses and both were accountants that worked in the same office. She was a honey blonde, he was a brunette and that's where their differences ended.

"Chummer, don't start that matchmaking drek again," Neville told me off with a scowl, transferring his annoyance at the bumblebee onto me.

"Just don't wait like I did and end up a dried old fossil at the bottom of the gene pool."

Amanda snorted. "Maybe you should get that Da Fang treatment and ask me out instead," she teased, referring to Shiawase's Age Rejuvenation procedure.

I gave her an overly theatrical sigh of longing. "Alas, Amanda, I'm afraid you're too good for me."

"More like you're too big a control freak to let anyone else into your life," she groused.

"Hey, I resemble that remark!"

"Actually, my Omiai's organized a date for me tonight," Neville admitted reluctantly.

Being a traditionalist Japanese company, Shiawase called the professional matchmakers in HR 'Omiais' after the ancient Japanese practice. In reality, the business had less to do with finding compatible partners as it did genetic profiling with the goal of producing a superior crop of future employees. I'd never been a fan thanks to my streak of hopeless romanticism combined with my gender issues. "Anyone we know?" I asked with feigned indifference. After a morning of boredom, I was ready to hook my claws into any piece of juicy office gossip, no matter how trivial.

"Ms. Nakatomi Hoshi."

I was taking a drink at the time and almost swallowed the wrong way. "Horrible Hoshi?" I asked between coughs. "I didn't think they let managers mix with us hoi-paloi."

"Um, I've been looking into ethnic reconstruction," he admitted, not looking either of us in the eye.

Ethnic reconstruction was another genetech advancement. Not happy being Asian? They can make you a Caucasian blonde; or vice versa. In Shiawase, one way to earn brownie points with management if you're anything other than Japanese is to get the treatment to become Japanese. It is unusual for a Japanacorp to endorse such things so readily but Shiawase was originally a biotech firm and a lot more open than outfits like Mitsuhama. The news killed my mood, so I turned my eyes down to my food and concentrated on eating. "Oh," I replied sullenly.

Neville glared at me. "Don't get sanctimonious on me, it's not like phenotypic alteration's a big deal these days..."

"No, you're right, it isn't," I interrupted his tirade, sighing deeply. "Ignore me; I respect your personal choice."

Scowling, he took a big bite out of his soyburger. "All right, what's your problem then?"

Rolling my eyes, I knew neither of them were going to let it go, so I tapped some commands into my commlink and showed them a 3D holographic picture. There was a young Japanese couple in the photograph with the mother holding a little baby girl. They looked to be in their early 20's, grinning happily at each other. "My parents, along with my new little sister," I explained. "They're living in Neo-Tokyo now."

"Holy Drek," Amanda hissed under her breath, fascinated by the image. Her eyes flicked from the photo to my pale Caucasian visage and back again. "How old are they?"

"In actuality you mean? Dad's 76, Mom's a year younger. They used to have problems conceiving, another issue solved by the genetic surgery."

"They look really happy," Neville defended them like I was somehow attacking their choice.

"When they made their decision to become Japanese, they asked me to do it at the same time. Keep the family together and all that, even bigger brownie points for all of us. I had my own reasons to refuse; we had an argument... let's just say that photo is the only contact I've had from them since. Dad got promoted, Mom left work to be a housewife and she's pregnant again, apparently. My issue isn't genetic surgery or selling out for a promotion or anything like that, it's my fragged up relationship with my family."

"Wow," Amanda commented, staring at the picture, "do you have a pic of them from before?"

"No, I don't," I grumbled. We ate in silence after that.

We finished eating well before our half hour was up but we still didn't speak. I didn't know what Amanda and Neville were thinking but my mind kept wandering back to my family. Too many regrets, too many things said and left unsaid. In the end, I just hoped they were happy. Sometimes I thought it felt like they'd died, though only intellectually; feelings aren't always rational.

I was getting up from my seat when my whole body was hammered by a sudden blast wave that I didn't hear until a few moments later. It wasn't strong enough to throw me off my feet but I stumbled over my chair and fell flat on my chest, the tray flying out of my hands. The entire room filled with thick grey smoke as I lay there clutching my ears, trying to make the loud ringing noise go away. The sprinkler system burst immediately, making every visible surface treacherously slick.

Neville dragged Amanda under the table and hugged her tight, shielding her with his own body. Glass and pieces of concrete sprayed everywhere moments later, forcing me to close my eyes and shield my face. There were too many people left in the cafeteria but those that were either dived to the floor or tried to make a run for it. I let out a scream that I didn't hear when a woman running for the door stepped on my leg. Not five feet later, she spun to the floor, blood splattering everywhere as she was nearly torn in half. My ears might have been ringing but I'd watched enough Desert Wars footage to recognize the sort of damage a HVMG (Hypervelocity Machinegun) can do to a meatbod. If I'd been able to hear, I would have known for sure, the noise is quite distinctive.

Wind scatted the smoke, which continued to boil out of the remains of the trashcan. The ringing in my ears faded and I thought I was deaf for a moment until I heard the hiss of the sprinklers overhead and the occasional whimper of fear. I looked up when I heard the crunch of glass under a heavy boot. The troll emerged from the fog like a living nightmare of flesh and chrome. Now, I'm no racist but I'd challenge anyone to look up at this motherfragger and not drek their pants. The average troll is 2.5 meters tall; this guy was nearly 4. He was wearing a tactical vest loaded with ammo and grenades over a heavy flak jacket that left his arms bare, the lower half clad in ripped urban cammo combat fatigues. Most trolls have fleshy protrusions and bone spikes protruding from knotted muscles; what was left of this guy's right arm above the elbow was gnarled with scars and tattoos, the rest had been replaced with cybernetics. His left arm had been completely replaced, though it was covered with synthetic skin the spikes sticking through the flesh were chrome. He was wearing half-face mask tied below the horns that arced above his head but his eyes were pure silver, blank and emotionless.

His steel-toed combat boots crushed glass to powder as he walked past me, looking down the barrel of what was unmistakably a Panther Assault Cannon. The kind of gun gun you'd use to hunt dragons or tanks. He scanned the room, his cybereyes obviously able to see through the smoke. I breathes a sigh of relief when he stepped past, just thankful I wasn't who he was looking for. A few meters away, he did find his target, a man I recognized as one of the manager from the Aeronautics division two floors down. The troll pinned him down and cuffed him before he could scurry away before throwing the man kicking and screaming over his shoulder like he was manhandling a child. Nobody protested, nobody moved to help, nobody even said a goddamn thing. Neither did I, I'm not stupid.

What happened next did make me doubt the security division's intelligence, however. The main door was blown off its hinges on one side of the room while a hole was blasted straight through the ferrocrete wall at the other. Moments later, black-armoured security personnel tried to storm into the room from both sides. I said tried; their rapid bursts of fire were returned by both the troll's assault cannon and the HVMGs on the drone that was hovering outside, both heavy weapons blowing chunks out of the building all around us.

Bullets continued to whizz overhead and I tried screaming at Neville to get Amanda down on the floor but I was too late. A bullet speared straight through his shoulder, nearly taking Amanda's head off, blood gushing out of the wound as he collapsed in shock. Crawling on my belly like a snake, I dragged myself over to him, looking into Neville's blankly staring eyes as Amanda wailed, curled into a foetal ball. Taking my jacket off, I wadded it up and shoved it under his shoulder, placing pressure on the exit wound with both hands to try and staunch the bleeding.

"Neville!" I shouted into his face, trying to get through to him over the sound of gunfire and explosions. "Listen to me! Nod your head if you can hear me! Nod your fragging he..."

They're right about one thing. You don't hear the one that hits you.

#

>>>>> [LOGIN*#$NETRANGER;username=Thornbird;password=************] <<<<<
Connecting... ... ... ...
>>>>>[Password Accepted. Welcome, Thornbird, you have 13 new messages.]<<<<<

>>>>>[Holy hand grenades, mates! Have you seen the footage hitting the screamsheets from the Shiawase tower hit this morning? Someone started up a small fragging war right in my backyard! What gives?]<<<<<
- Thornbird

>>>>>[Is that Kosko?!?!?!]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>>[You know another twelve foot troll with cyberarms and chrome eyes?]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[Bite me.]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>>[Sweet fragging hell, who's supplying Cook's beetles these days? Chummer, I think that 'Armed to the Teeth' sim you slotted was bad.]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>>[Um... Cook?]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>>[Hello?]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>>[Cook hasn't logged in for over forty eight hours. Considering the shitstorm gunning for his team's heads, I wouldn't expect him to surface for a while.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Word on the street is that this job was contracted in great haste but Cook's crew executed the run within the Johnson's parameters. I don't know what they had on Cook to make him accept such an insane job but there we go.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>>[Nice try Foresight but everyone knows you're Cook's fixer. Who the frag made you sell out your boy?]<<<<<
- Suspiciously Delicious

>>>>>[I can neither confirm nor deny that I was involved.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>>[Forget that noise, chummers. The real question is who benefits from Shiawase's loss of face in Sydney? Drek, anyone got a line on the poor bastard that got snatched?]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>>[Dr. Yoshinobu Takaga, a low level researcher for Shiawase Aerospace. Usually, I'd scan what there is on his personnel file and conclude that something in his personal life got him geeked but here's the trick. My guy on the inside says that the go order for the fast response team only came after the security system tagged Takaga as the runner's target. The moment that happened, the sec boys got the kill order and switched to live ammo.]<<<<<
- The Executioner

>>>>>[Bulldrek. Sorry, omae, as cynical as I am even I don't scan that. For one, even AAA corps don't wantonly slaughter their own employees during a hostage crisis, it's bad for business and bad for the corporate image. They might not give two dreks if one of their wageslaves dies but they do care about the effect that has on the bottom line.]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>>[Wait a minute. Takaga was geeked?]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>>[Splattered all over the CBD. Looks like Kosko lost his grip.]<<<<<
- The Executioner

>>>>>[Please tell me I'm not the only one smelling a rat here?]<<<<<
- Suspiciously Delicious

>>>>>[You're not the only one. An accident like that isn't in Kosko's character. Between that and the kill order given to the sec team, I'd lay money that the real goal of this op was smearing the good doctor's brain across pavement.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Anyone ever tell you you've got a morbid turn of phrase, Ned?]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>>[But that would mean it was Shiawase that wanted him geeked. Why make a big production out of it when you could quietly bump him off in a million other ways with no-one the wiser?]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[I'd bet dog biscuits that Takaga wasn't killed for what he knew but who he knew. This is a very public statement to someone out there but they're the only ones who are going to get the full import of the message. Now, if I was the type to speculate wildly, I'd suspect that this incident will give Shiawase an excuse to go on the warpath. And I hate to say it but the use of a metahuman crew for this job makes too much damn sense if you look at the inside job angle. Cook and co, be safe chummers.]<<<<<
- The Executioner

>>>>>[On the other hand, it could be a double blind setting up Shiawase too look like the perpetrator of the crime against itself to divert suspicion from all the usual suspects.]<<<<<
- Foresight
>>>>>[Chummer, do you know something or are you just throwing up static?]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>>[Like anyone would actually answer that question. Welcome to the shadows, chummer.]<<<<<
- Original


The statement in my signature is false.

[Updated on: Fri, 27 July 2012 23:06]

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Re: No Time for Second Chances [message #62750 is a reply to message #62484] Thu, 02 August 2012 01:06 Go to previous messageGo to next message
Dr. Bender is currently offline  Dr. Bender
Messages: 1232
Registered: January 2005
Location: 47°9′S 126°43...
Chapter 2

She smelled like roses.

Her beauty transcended mortal ability to describe it. Desire was her cloak, lust her plaything, her naked sexuality peeling away the layers of humanity to caress the beating, primal, heart of man. She was every woman and no woman, the embodiment of every sexual thought and the promise of fulfilment; her slightest movement artlessly calculated to inflame the passions.

She had me pinned underneath her like a butterfly on display, my arms held down by her legs as she straddled my hips. I wasn't complaining. Her long nails traced complex patterns across my chest as the sinuous movement of her hips milked every last drop of pleasure from my body. Her whispered secrets echoed in the velvet darkness, assaulting my mind and soul with promises of the forbidden.

My eyes fluttered open. Thick drawn curtains muted the sunlight streaming in through the window, though the white walls glowed in the half-light, making the room lighter than it might otherwise. The first thing I saw was the vase full of white roses on the table next to my bed, suffusing the air with their fragrance. The room was so quiet that the sound of my breathing seemed amplified. I couldn't mistake the feeling of the bandages wound tightly around my skull, reaching up I could feel the padding underneath the right side of my head.

I had to adjust myself to stop tenting the bedsheets, the residual effects of my strange wet dream continuing to linger. No matter what I tried to think of, however, I couldn't get rid of the absurd case of morning wood I was sporting. Thinking back, I tried to remember what had happened but the last thing I saw was Neville's blood spurting through my fingers.

My thoughts were interrupted when the door opened. The nurse backed into the room, pulling a trolley along behind her as she pushed the door open with her ass. I couldn't help but notice that is was a nice ass too. She was an earthy sort of girl with chestnut locks and a tan that indicated she either enjoyed days at the beach or had a line on an excellent biosculptor. Her nametag introduced her as Janet Paige of DocWagon™, the sight of which made me want to upgrade my policy then and there.

"Morning, Mr. McArthur," she greeted brightly as she positioned the trolley of food over my bed, "mind doing a couple of tests for me before you eat?"

My stomach gurgled at the mention of food but I nodded, trying to shuffle up into a sitting position. "How long was I out?"

"You've only been in overnight... if you could look into this light for me, please?"

She tortured me by flicking the light between my eyes a few times, my pupils still dilated from the low light conditions. She seemed happy with what she saw and made a few notes on her commlink. "Anyone come in with me? I was trying to give first aid to Neville Turing..."

"Not that we received," she answered with a shrug. "Most of your colleagues probably have an internal contract with Shiawase Meditech. I'm sorry but we don't have any news, though I'm sure some detectives from Knight Errant will be around for a chat sooner or later. You're really lucky; the bullet deflected off your skull, one millimetre either way and it would have been much worse."

"Just as long as I don't have priapism," I muttered, wincing as I tried to wrangle myself into a comfortable position without touching anything embarrassing.

She smirked, her eyes flicking to my crotch for a moment. "Yeah, we noticed. It's really not that unusual after suffering head trauma, if it doesn't go down by tonight you'll probably want to mention it to the doctor."

Brunch turned out to be sloppy powered scrambled eggs, tofu and soybacon accompanied by soycaff and liquid vitamin supplements. Nothing a growing boy needs. When the doctor came around an hour later, he was short and to the point. I was extremely lucky. I was smart to pay the extra money for emergency magical care, a simple healing spell had been able to fix my fractured skull in moments. I was going to be discharged in the morning as long as there weren't any complications. He forbade me to use my datajack just yet but allowed AR Matrix access so I could entertain myself.

Naturally, my first port of call was the newsnets. Seven Shiawase employees had died in a 'vicious assault' on Shiawase Tower. Thirteen more were seriously injured. Shiawase Corporate Security Division was 'cooperating fully with the Knight Errant investigation'. Cooperating fully my hoop, Shiawase was going to be screaming for blood. Shiawase stock had suffered a slight dip along with investor confidence in the company; no corporation in the world would let that slide.

The pictures of the poor bastard that had almost gotten kidnapped turned my stomach. Someone had managed to get a nice close-up shot of the suited smear on the pavement with a drone-mounted camera before KE had arrived to clean up. His name wasn't even vaguely familiar to me despite the fact that we'd probably taken lunch only a few feet away from each other for years. I tried calling up Shiawase Meditech to inquire about Neville but the office wouldn't accept my call. When that failed I tried Amanda's commcode but didn't get an answer.

Powerless to do anything about the attack, I gave up and decided to take the opportunity to research gender reassignment surgery now that I was nowhere near a Shiawase node. Genetic therapy had advanced to the stage where they could make you a full woman down to the chromosomes. Unfortunately, this did not include the ability to beget a child in the traditional way. The top end procedure was also over 1,000,000¥, well out of my price range. Several hospitals were throwing in packages that included dietware and other biotech enhancements 'for free'. After all, if they've got you on the table for three months, they might as well, neh?

Not even my dejection over the impossibility of my dream could assuage my hard-on, so I gave up and decided to call Chester. I only had to sit through one ring before the lawyer's relieved smile appeared on the trideo. "Nathan! You don't know what a relief it is to see you awake."

I smiled. "Nice to see you too, Chester, everything still running smoothly?"

He nodded. "I can set your mind at ease on that score, HFS saw some new business from our regular client base; also requests for personal defence items and firewall upgrades."

"Well, I'm not going to complain if people are getting a bit more security conscious," I muttered. It did feel a little like we were taking advantage of people's fear but nuyen is nuyen.

"Now the bad news, we got another e-mail in our drop-box from someone who requested a meeting with you by name. The only name he left was Mr. Johnson."

My heart skipped a beat. "Should I be worried?"

"I wouldn't get too worried, if you were in trouble we wouldn't be getting polite requests, they'd just put the screws to you. In fact, this could be a good thing; there are people who find companies like HFS useful. But enough of that, how are you feeling?"

"A bit of a headache but they say I'll be fine. I only got winged, magical healing took care of it. Can you do me a favour and see if you can get a handle on Neville Turing's condition? I can't get through to Shiawase Meditech from here."

"Got it; call me if you need a ride home."

"Thanks mate," I said gratefully before he disconnected.

Time passes excruciatingly slowly in a hospital ward, even with AR entertainment. No matter how hard I tried I couldn't get the dream out of my head. It had been so vivid, so real, even more real than simsense. If I'd been somewhere more private, I would have tried rubbing one out, instead the best I could do was distract myself with anything that came close to hand. I would have killed for access to my sims, Soaring Harpy was just what I needed at that moment.

Driven batty by my suddenly hyperactive libido, I carefully got out of bed and tried to slowly pace it off. It didn't work. I swore to myself the moment I got out I was going to slot some seriously nasty elf porn which only succeeded in making my imagination run wild. Needing to get out of the tiny room for a few minutes, I contemplated sneaking out while the nurse was busy. Padding over to the door in my garish hospital gown, I slowly twisted the doorhandle, opening it just a crack so I could see out and down the hallway. Just my luck, I was in a room close to the nurse's desk, right under Janet's watchful eye. In my state, I couldn't help but notice her; young, lithe, full of life. Deep down, I couldn't help but wish I could be her or at least be with her for a little while.

A sudden wave of dizziness made me swoon for a moment. When my vision cleared, I saw Janet's head turn to look my way. Panicking, I closed the door a little harder than I should have and scrambled back into bed, hastily throwing the sheet over me. Moments after I'd settled, Janet opened the door and peered in. "Are you ok in here, Mr. McArthur."

I coughted and made like I was shifting restlessly in bed. "Uh, yeah, sorry, this... uh... guess I'm just going a little stir crazy," I explained myself weakly.

Checking the hallway quickly, she took the 'do not disturb' sign from the inner handle and put it on the outside doorknob before slipping inside and quietly shutting the door behind her. I had to pull my eyes away from the way her uniform hugged her curves as she walked, concentrating on the roses next to me. "Maybe I should take a look," she suggested, looking down at where my manhood was poking up the bedsheet.

I blanched. "Um, no, that's not necessary, I mean I um..."

She smirked. "Don't worry, this isn't my first time," she tried to reassure me as she pulled the bedsheet up to take a look.

At a loss for words, I bit my tongue and let it happen. What she saw made her bite her lower lip speculatively. A protest caught in my thought when she reached out to touch it, a single gentle stroke silencing me. I thought about protesting when she bent over, taking me in her mouth, but my will broke and I just let it happen. Can't say I was sorry that I did. She was better than good; she was everything I'd imagined and more.

She left me with a smile on my face looking smugly satisfied with herself. Sweet, blessed, relief made me drift off into a peaceful slumber. The woman who was no woman was waiting for me there, her diaphanous robes floating in a sea of colour. She reached out, beckoning me closer, tempting and begging me with her eyes simultaneously.

I moved effortlessly, floating weightlessly towards her on the current of my will. She smiled as I took her hand in mine, drawing me closer. Caressing my cheek, her fingertips strayed down my chin, brushing my neck before cresting my collarbone and entering the valley between my breasts.... Staring, it took me a while for my brain to register the fact. I had breasts and a curvaceous body to match them, my long silver hair floating behind me as I moved.

"Become me," the seductress whispered as she pulled me in for a kiss.

"Mr. McArthur?"

My eyes snapped open when something shook me. For a moment, all I could see was an orange blob streaked with yellow, its edges tinged with purple, green and a little bit of red. Blinking rapidly, my visions cleared suddenly and I could see Janet looking down at me, concern on her face. "Are you all right, Mr. McArthur?" she asked.

"What? Yes, sorry, yes, I... I think so," I stammered, my hands shaking. "S-sorry, just a dream...." She still looked a little worried as she tucked me in. I noticed that it was dark outside. "Don't they send you home?"

She sighed. "Double shift. I'm sorry for waking you up but you were moaning, scared me half to death let me tell you."

"No, no, that's all right. Um, Janet, about before... thank you, it really helped."

She smiled at me. Seeming to come to a decision, she took out her commlink and tapped a few commands into it. Summoning a holographic card, she flicked it into the palm of my hand, transferring it to the active memory of my temporary commlink. "My commcode," she explained with a flirtatious look before walking out.

I immediately e-mailed it to my main account.

Lying there in the darkness, it was almost as if I could still feel the weight on my chest. It took a while but finally I drifted off again, this time into a dreamless sleep.

#

>>>>>[LOGIN*#$NETRANGER;username=Praetor;password=********]< <<<<

>>>>>[ACCESS:MagicChat;verified=true]<<<<<

>>>>>[...which is why I doubt this alchera actually exists. Oh, hoi Praetor.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[Yo, mate.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[Hey, chummer, what brings you into this neck of the bush?]<<<<<
- Two Wands Blazing

>>>>>[Guys... I have questions and I know I'm going to cop some drek off you all for this but it's serious. Look, last night, I met a girl...]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[Congratz. Dating advice is two doors down on the left.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[Very funny, that's exactly the shit I was talking about. I'm dead serious, this is about biz. I need some advice.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[Ignore him, chummer, what's up?]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[Ok, I met this girl at a club last night and we really hit it off; houses and fire, all that drek. Only this morning, I noticed a lot of little pins, you know like badges, stuck on the lining of her coat. I think she's awakened and I need to know... I need to know if what I felt last night was real.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[Oh for Christ's sake.]<<<<<
- Two Wands Blazing

>>>>>[Now, now, Wands. It's not paranoia if everyone's really out to get you.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[Praetor, if this is some anti-awakened bulldrek, I swear I'll track you down, turn you into a statue and leave you out for the pigeons.]<<<<<
- Two Wands Blazing

>>>>>[Hand on heart, Wands, I'm not pulling some drekhead prank. I know magic can alter people's minds, how can I know if someone's done something to me?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[The short, blunt, answer is that you can't.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[Unfortunately my colleague is correct, there's no way for a mundane to tell if they are being magically influenced unless they successfully overcome the spell's effects or someone notices that they aren't acting themselves and confronts them. Even then, the victim's willpower still needs to overcome the spell.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[Here's the issue, Praetor, the first thing a mage has to do is learn the spell. Mental manipulation spell formula are illegal pretty much everywhere. That means most mages have to create it from scratch, which takes time and nuyen unless they have the right connections. If I were you, before I start panicking, I'd hit the pavement and do the proper legwork on your girl, find out who she is. Hell, you should be doing that anyway.]<<<<<
- Two Wands Blazing

>>>>>[He's right, that's a good start. Find out if she could possibly have access to the magic first. Believe it or not, it's actually quite rare, hell I don't know the formulae myself.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[Other than that, you can hire a mage to assense you while you're on a date, see if they spot her casting spells on you. These spells also require concentration unless she's using a sustaining focus, so you were right to suspect those badges of hers.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[Ok. If spells are so hard to come by, though, what about the kids you hear about who manifest and start throwing fireballs around?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[-snorts- I very much doubt there's 8 year olds actually throwing full bore combat spells. Setting things on fire in a stressful situation or giving a bully a telekinetic push, sure, but blowing up buildings is another league.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[But they do awaken just knowing a spell?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[Technically, yes. Accidental manifestations aren't actually that strong, though, it's not like the horror trids where creepy little girls are setting everything on fire and forcing their mothers to gouge their own eyes out with a pair of scissors.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[Ewww, you've been hanging around Ned too much.]<<<<<
- Two Wands Blazing

>>>>>[Early manifestations are more dangerous to the child than they are to others anyway, which is why most privileged children are tested often for signs of awakening. Following your logic, though, is it conceivable for an awakened child to just know a mental manipulation spell? Yes. Heck, it's probably happened before but the issue would be generating enough force for the spell to overcome the victim's willpower; possible but highly unlikely.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[.... And you guys wonder why you scare the crap out of mundanes.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[This ain't the scary stuff. You want scary, sign up to clear out some Shedim, you'll never sleep again.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[You also need to consider another possibility, Praetor. Even if she is awakened (some people just like pins, you know) and knows the right spell and used it on you, it's quite possible that her intentions aren't malicious.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[What?!?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[Never bought your date a drink, Praetor? Chocolates? Massage? Music? Told a joke? Whispered sweet nothings into someone's ear? Face it, a lot of courtship is mental manipulation of the social kind.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[Are you seriously trying to justify mind control?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[Certainly not a Control Actions or Control Thoughts spell, that's definitely bad juju. Control Emotions and Influence are in the grey area morally, a lot like natural seduction. Let's say you find out this girl isn't awakened but down the pipe she sells you out to the man, does her being awakened or not really matter?]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[I don't agree but I take the point.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[Tell you what, I'm sending you a secure commcode. If you see her again, call me, I'll chaperone and make sure she's on the up and up.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[-phew- Thanks, Magelight, I owe you big.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[Don't get too comfortable. If she's more powerful than Magelight, she can mask her spellcasting from him. In fact, anyone you ever meet could potentially be controlling your mind and nobody would ever know.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[Frag you, Original.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[DISCONNECT:username=Praetor; ... Connection Terminated.]<<<<<

>>>>>[Ok. Care to explain, Wands?]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[Don't look at me like that! He was cute and I just wanted to make him happy, ok? I didn't expect it to go that far.]<<<<<
- Two Wands Blazing

>>>>>[And at what point were you going to admit you're really 14?]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[SHUT UP, FRAGFACE, YOU ARE NOT MY FRAGGING FATHER!]<<<<<
- Two Wands Blazing

>>>>>[DISCONNECT:username=Two Wands Blazing; ... Connection Ternimated.]<<<<<

>>>>>[Sometimes I hate the Sixth World.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[You and me both, chummer.]<<<<<
- Original

#

Chester had a Rolls Royce Phaeton waiting for me outside the hospital when I walked out the next morning. The good old bastard always did have a sense of style. I was just opening the door when two men in grey suits, one an older grey-haired Caucasian gentleman in a tan longcoat, the other a younger Asian man with dark hair wearing a dark blue duster, approached me.

"Mr. McArthur?" the older man asked with a fake smile.

Pausing, I left the door open between us as I took them both in. "That's me, I'm guessing you gentlemen are the detectives from Knight Errant?"

They both reluctantly took out their ID to show me. "Detective Dwire," the older one introduced himself, "this is my partner, Detective Tebbit."

I guessed Dwire was going to do most of the talking, trusting that I'd been thoroughly indoctrinated by Japanese culture to blindly accept the Simpai/Kohai relationship they were presenting to me. It was a good plan, most of my colleagues would have fallen for it, and I was happy to play along. "Pleasure to meet you both, is there any way I can help?"

"Just routine inquiries," Dwire reassured me, "if you could just go over what happened for us so we can take your statement."

I looked longingly into the luxuriously passenger compartment of the Phaeton for a moment before closing the door and sending the driver an instruction to park it via my commlink. "Certainly, officers, why don't we discus it over coffee?"

Coffee meant soycaff, of course, none of us could afford the real deal even if they sold it in hospital cafeterias, which they don't. To my surprise, the waitress gave me a wink behind the detective's backs after she finished serving us, so I was a little flustered when I spoke again. "I'm sure you saw the security footage and the stuff on the news. I'm not sure I can add too much to that, there was a lot of smoke and it all happened so fast."

"Actually, the security footage we've received doesn't tell us that much either," Dwire admitted, "anything you could remember might be very helpful to our case. Now, we do know that you were sitting with Neville Turing and Amanda Knonstantos before the attack."

"That's right," I confirmed, "is Neville all right?"

Dwire gave me a sympathetic look. "I'm afraid Mr. Turing passed on. Loss of blood, it would have been relatively painless."

It was a bit of a shock, I felt the blood drain from my face so I drank some of my soycaff to try and calm my nerves.

"If you don't mind, Mr. McArthur," Tebbit interrupted, pressing me, "what were you discussing with your workmates before the incident?"

"Nothing," I said, shaking my head. "Personal issues."

"It seemed to get a little heated," Dwire observed in soothing tones.

I shrugged and sighed. "Neville was considering getting a transgenic treatment to change his ethnicity and he got defensive when I wasn't entirely positive. It was nothing, certainly not relevant to the attack."

"Why was he considering gene therepy?" Tebbit insisted.

"Because Japanese girls want Japanese kids, sayo." 'Sayo' is a Japanese short form for 'it's true', which earned me a glare.

"I'm surprised a company like Shiawase would go for that sort of thing," Dwire observed.

"It's 2065, Detective. Shiawase is very proud of our pioneering advancements in biotechnology and gene therepy."

"Why did it cause an argument, then?"

"Because of my personal issues," I answered, rolling my eyes. "If you must know, my parents were amongst the first to receive the treatment along with age rejuvenation, so I'm a little sensitive about the matter. It wasn't really an argument, Neville admitted he was considering courting an executive and getting the treatment, I backed off, he got defensive and we sorted it out. Just embarrassing office gossip."

"Unless you let him die over it," Tebbit interjected.

"Oh, please," I sighed. "Talk to the doctors, I almost got my brain blown out trying to save his life."

"That was the other thing I wanted to ask you," Dwire said, taking control of the conversation again. "Do you know that you were the only Shiawase employee in that cafeteria with a DocWagon contract? Most have a standard contract with Shiawase Nanotech's medical division."

"Neville didn't and now he's dead. Looks like I made the right call, doesn't it?"

"That's a little cold," Tebbit said.

"Is there any particular reason you're busting my balls, Detective? You're barking up the wrong tree, Neville was my friend and I didn't have anything to do with the attack other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"Tebbit, why don't you grab some of those delicious looking iced doughnuts for us?" Dwire interrupted before Tebbit could say anything else. Without a word, the younger Detective got up and stormed off. "Sorry about that," Dwire apologized, "he's a bit too emotionally involved. He's a KE man through and through but you can take the boy away from the homeland..."

"Sure," I said, not believing a word of it. "Look, I'll say it again for the record. I didn't want Neville Turing dead and I had nothing to do with the attack."

"I know, I know, and I'm sorry we've gotten off on the wrong foot. Why don't you start from right before the explosion."

So I did. I went through the first explosion, the smoke, being pelted with glass and concrete, showered with water; the troll looming out of the smoke; bullets flying everywhere, the blood and bowl-loosening terror, all of it. Tebbit came back in the middle with iced doughnuts. I didn't touch mine. "And the next thing I knew, I was staring at the roses by my bedside," I finished.

"And you didn't recognize the troll at all?"

I snorted. "I don't hang out with Shadowrunners."

"What makes you think he was a 'runner?"

"Come on, a cybered-up troll with an assault cannon? What else could he be?"

There wasn't anything else they could say to that, so they politely finished their doughnuts and fragged off like they were in a hurry. I only learned that Tebbit had put the doughnuts on my tab days later, not that I was too ruffled by a fifteen lousy nuyen; petty revenge at its best.

The Phaeton gave me a location ping to my commlink, which I followed into the carpark. Finally getting into the limo, I was looking forward to a smooth, comfortable, ride home with plenty of time to de-stock the minibar. In fact, getting drunk sounded so good I didn't even notice the man pointing a Shiawase Armaments Heavy Tactical automatic pistol casually at my chest until I was seated.

One thing I'll say for growing up in a stone-faced, control-freakish, soulless Japanacorp is that it prepares you for the moment your entire life goes to hell. Corporate training tells your emotions to shut down, setting your face into an impassive mask as your brain does everything to avoid thinking about the consequences that the next few minutes could have on the rest of your short life. Not that I completely became an emotionless machine, I felt drops of sweat begin to creep down my brow as my body acknowledged what my mind refused.

The man attached to the gun was Japanese, wore a Vashoon Island suit and long coat more stylish than any that I possessed with mirror shades, his hair worn down to his shoulders but immaculately groomed. Somehow, the thin black latex gloves were the most intimidating part of his attire, calling to mind the popular image of the corporate assassin from the trideo. "Konichiwa, McArthur-san," he addressed me in Japanese, "I believe I left a message with your partner to contact me as soon as possible."

My mouth was dry, I had to lick the roof of my mouth to stimulate saliva production before I could speak. "My apologies, I had planned to contact you as soon as I was home."

"Patience is not one of my virtues," he admitted as the driver pulled out of the carpark. "You may call me Mr. Johnson; I am here to discuss your sideline with HFS."

"Nothing I've done is illegal," I defended myself immediately, probably a little too hastily.

"Technically, no but the people I represent don't like to be hampered by trivialities."

I imagined getting the drop on this guy and punching him in the throat. It would have been tempting if his gun wasn't likely to leave a dinner plate sized hole in my body. I could see the contempt in his eyes; he thought I was nothing, just a low level employee skimming from the company, a petty thief. Despite that, we were still talking, which sent a different message. "Mr. Johnson," I began, licking my lips nervously, stalling for time to gather my thoughts, "I'm sure you'll agree that companies like HFS can be as useful to Shiawase as it is to its employees."

"You are nothing but a tick on the Tiger's back," he said flatly.

"Granted," I allowed with a shrug, not even allowing a fleeting mote of pride to enter my thoughts. "But last I checked, assassins don't introduce themselves to their victims before they shoot them. If your theatrics are meant to impress me, then I can assure you that I'm very impressed. Now can we get down to business?"

After a moment's consideration, he lowered the gun. "Your personnel profile didn't mention you were such a shrewd talker. You know that your 'business' syphons profits from Shiawase's bottom line, why would we want you to continue?"

"My business isn't even a speedbump on the bottom line," I snarled. "Shiawase pays in corporate script, it gets that script back and moves product. Any cost to Shiawase is comparable to selling goods to an independent retail store. And HFS can be useful to Shiawase as a grey market front, I don't know a corporation in the world that doesn't have some use for a deniable business asset. You'd know that better than anyone else in Shiawase, Mr. Johnson."

I didn't know Mr. Johnson but I knew his type. Mr. Johnson is an old alias for a company man that does the dirty work so that higher level executives can keep their hands clean. Infamously, anyone who hires shadowrunners is usually called Mr. Johnson independent of sex or affiliation to maintain the anonymity of the client. Assuming he was a professional Shiawase Johnson, grey and black markets were nothing he wasn't accustomed to dealing with.

His stony-faced expression didn't budge an inch. I was guessing he grew up in Neo-Tokyo, which meant his assignment to the Sydney offices was a bit of a step down. Then again, he looked young enough for this post to be his proving grounds, which would explain the chip on his shoulder he seemed to have for me. Younger Japanese corporate raiders like to think they're part Yakuza, waving guns around and hurling insults isn't the older boy's style.

"Then you have no compunctions about taking jobs from me?" He asked outright, which was refreshing. One thing I'll say against the older execs, they take vulgar delight in beating around the bush.

"Cost of doing business," I answered.

He made out like he was considering it when we both knew he was just posing, drawing as much drama out of the moment as he could. His technique wasn't exactly sloppy but I wasn't a younger suit still eager for fame and fortune who believed in sticking it to the man. The man always wins, he either stabs you in the back or you live long enough to become him.

"Then let's start with something that interests both of us," he said finally, "the death of Dr. Yoshinobu Takaga."

I admit, that threw me a bit. "I'm sorry, I don't quite understand. HFS provides financial services..."

"And if you want to keep on doing business, you'll provide me with whatever I ask of you," he interrupted. "The matter that vexes Shiawase right now is the loss of public confidence that this terrorist attack has wrought on the company. You say you can be useful to us, prove it." He took a paper business card out of his coat pocket and held it out for me between two fingers. When I reached for it, he curled his fingers suddenly, pulling it out of my grasp. "You understand what will happen if you prove to be no use to me?"

"You've made yourself clear," I replied in a serious tone. Kids love it when they think you're taking them seriously. Finally, he let me take the card, which had nothing on it other than a commcode.

We sat in silence for a few moments while the driver found somewhere to pull over and let Mr. Johnson out. "Call me when you find something," he ordered as he pulled himself out of the car and hit the street, the door closing automatically behind him.

The moment the environmental seal hissed shut, I was on my commlink frantically calling Chester. Unfortunately I only got his answering service, so I was forced to leave a slightly panicked message for him to get back to me as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I was at a complete loss as to what to do next. On the trids, a runner would call up his Fixer, who would have just the info I needed for a price. All the people I barely knew were Shiawase bean counters, none of them knew anything.

Getting back to basics, I jacked into my 'link and sank into the virtual world of the Matrix. In a moment I was standing in the middle of the Sydney Metropolitan Public Matrix, a lush world of perfect beaches, lush greenery and floating silver towers that glistened in the perpetual sunlight. As always, the infinite space was flooded with personas of all shapes and sizes from the ever-popular beach bunnies and Knight Errant's 'Lifeguard Patrol' to barely acceptable low-rez icons, cartoon characters and suited wageslaves. My persona fit into the latter category, since I was using my Shiawase-issued commlink, but blending in was fine for my purposes.

Firing up my Agent, an autonomous program designed to execute simple tasks, I gave it some search parameters and let it loose while I fired up my own browse program look for myself. The first hits I got on 'Dr. Yoshinobu Takaga' weren't a surprise, every two-bit media outlet had pictures of his corpse plastered all over their front pages alongside pictures of his stoically grieving family as they knelt before a picture of him on the family shrine. It was all very Japanese and also obviously a carefully orchestrated PR stunt by Shiawase. Between the rhetoric about honour and the samurai way, however, I did learn that Takaga worked for Shiawase Aerospace.

Shiawase Aerospace put up some red flags in my head straight away. Despite being a multinational megacorp with one of the most diverse product ranges of all the Big Ten, the company remained a small player when it came to aerospace development. While Shiawase Aerospace was formally its own division, in fact most of the assets were employed as part of projects for Shiawase Armaments. Takaga could have been working on anything from orbital habitats to combat drones; any of which would give rival corporations cause to attempt an extraction.

None of which was anything Mr. Johnson wouldn't already know, so I added Shiawase Aerospace to my Agent's search parameters before closing the browser and logging into the Shiawase network. Roaming into my cubicle, I used the internal search function to bring up Takaga's personnel file along with the account records for Shiawase Aerospace. Naturally, both public documents were heavily sanitized but I'd worked in the corporation long enough to correlate some of the information others might not it was my job after all.

Takaga might have been a lower level researcher but the number of projects he'd been involved in was staggering. His official job description was merely 'Assistant Aeronautical Engineer' but his profile was linked to a bunch of milspec drone projects, some of which remained classified. His death was a blow to Shiawase Armaments, certainly not enough to seriously harm the division but the loss of his expertise would sting.

Closing the personnel files, I left my cubicle and made my way out of the office nodes and into the online Shinto shrine, a unique feature of Shiawase matrix architecture. Corresponding to the real life public shrine in Shiawase Tower with tall lacquered red gates surrounded by beautiful Japanese gardens filled with Sakura blossoms. Stepping into the shrine proper, I bowed to the attendant Miko program, which analysed my commlink for anomalies and security threats, before kneeling before the picture of Takaga and the other employees who had died in the cafeteria attack to say a few prayers.

There weren't many other people in the shrine, most of whom were distracted by prayer or personal meditation, giving me an opportunity to survey the small mementos left behind on the altar. In the real world, these would be more personal objects like favourite toys, photographs or books but in VR and AR they took the form of haikus, simsense clips, trideo messages and other datafiles. One in particular caught my eye because it seemed so out of place in a Shinto shrine: a digital copy of Face Punch!, the official magazine of the Australian Urban Brawl Championships. The cover was an animated clip of a troll player shattering the faceplate of a human opponent with his fist, spraying glass and blood out of the virtual page into the air.

Pretending to finish paying my respects, I retreated from the shrine back into the public grid, adding Urban Brawl to the search perameters of my Agent before jacking out.

I opened my eyes to discover that the limo had stopped; only the view outside the window was unfamiliar. Opening the door, I stepped out onto the pock-marked concrete to find myself in the middle of Chinatown, under the shadow of World Square Arcology. Directly in front of me was a quaint little store that I assumed was a Talismonger thanks to the unusual items on display, though the signs were in Chinese. Something about the store intrigued me but I managed to tear myself away to find the driver looking under the Phaeton's bonnet.

"What's wrong?" I asked as I walked over.

"Sorry, sir," the ocker ork replied, removing his cap to scratch his head, "I think something's wrong with the electrical, she just stopped all of a sudden. Don't worry, sir, mechanic's on his way."

We were lucky to have broken down in the CBD, which was under constant surveillance from KE. Ground level wasn't safe other places south of the river and the further from city centre you got the less safe it was. I found my attention being drawn back to the Talismonger's, so I made a decision on a whim. "I'm just going to take a look in this shop and stretch my legs for a bit. By the way, what do you know about that guy you let into the passenger cab before?"

He had the decency to look guilty. "I, uh, don't know what you're talkin' about, sir."

"A hundred nuyen jog your memory?"

"Sir," he whispered, leaning closer while maintaining eye contact, "I don't need that kind of trouble."

Receiving the message loud and clear, I backed off. "Nobody does, chummer."

Stepping into the Talismonger was like stepping onto the set of a simsense flick. Jars of various preserved telesma, harvested from awakened animals and plants, lined the walls alongside musty books and scrolls. Display cases housed an array of charms, bottles of strange liquid, jewellery and other strange items labelled with AR icons that could be expended to provide more information on each item. Considering the value of some of the goods, I was betting that they were replicas with the real items locked safely away deeper inside the store. The counter had a matrix terminal to provide shoppers with an easily searchable catalogue of available goods. Beside the terminal sat a wrinkled old Chinese man in a traditional high-collared robe who gave me a grumpy look as he took a puff on his long, slender, pipe, filling the small room with smoke.

"Uh, good morning," I greeted. The room was dark, illuminated only by what little light filtered through the store windows, making it hard to see the old man's face.

Removing the pipe from his lips, he pointed the mouthpiece at me. "I know you," he stated in a voice like a gravel road with a thick accent.

I had to suppress my smile not to scoff at him. "I think you're mistaking me for someone else, I've never been here before."

"Ugh, what does that have to do with it?" he grumbled. "The stones and the spirits spoke of your arrival."

"Stones?"

He pointed down at the flat wooden octagonal plate in front of him. Looking more closely, I could see that there were small black and white pebbles scattered across the surface, each with a Chinese character carved into the surface. "These stones tell me the future."

I nodded. "Have you ever considered a job in market forecasting? I mean if you have any stock tips..."

The old man snorted with mirth before turning to the empty space next to him. "See? They never believe me."

Looking between the old man and the empty space for a moment, I pointed at the thin air he'd addressed a moment ago. "You're saying there's a spirit standing right there?"

He shrugged. "Look for yourself."

"I can't," I sighed, "I'm not awakened."

"And that," he said, poking my chest with the end of his pipe, "is where you are wrong."

I couldn't help but laugh. "Ok, ok, that's enough of the routine..."

"That Janet gives head real good, doesn't she Mr. McArthur?" he asked with a sarcastic chuckle.

My face must have turned white. "How did you...?"

He continued to chuckle for a few moments. "Like I said, the stones. They also tell me that you are in trouble... more trouble than you know yourself."

"Then I must be in a lot of trouble," I said, raising my eyebrows.

"Ugh," he grunted in agreement, "which is why I have something for you." Reaching under the counter, he produced a real, leather-bound, book that was over an inch thick. The cover was embossed with a lattice of pentagrams surrounding a large circle inside which two dragons were entwined. The outer boarder and inside the circle were decorated with a series of repeating runes. "This book will place you on your path."

I smirked. "Ok, I'll bite, how much?"

"This book is not for sale," he rebuffed me sternly, "it is a gift."

If my eyebrows rose any higher, I could have scalped myself. "Free? This book has to be worth thousands of nuyen!"

Sneering, the old man turned to hoik a loogie into a spittoon by his feet. "This book is worth nothing to anyone but you and I. Good karma is worth more than money, by giving you this, I follow my way and the spirits smile on me. Besides, dead men don't buy telesma... well, not usually. If you must, consider it an extended loan, once you learn all you can from it, bring it back. Maybe then, you buy something more valuable."

Spiritual downpayments weren't my usual style but my curiosity was piqued enough that I picked the book up and nodded in thanks. Almost immediately, the door opened and my chauffeur poked his head in. "Sir! It's ok, I got the car working again! We won't even have to wait for the mechanic."

Blinking rapidly at him as my brain processed what he was saying, I nodded dumbly. "Uh, yeah, ok, I'll be right out."

The old man chuckled as the ork left. "The spirits reward those who follow their path," he said cryptically.

Not knowing what to say to that, I took the book and left. As I stepped out the door, I glanced over my shoulder and saw a tall, thin, oriental man wearing a scholar's robe and an insanely long Fu Manchu moustache like something from a kung fu movie, his arms folded inside his sleeves. The man bowed to me before fading out of existence, there only for a fleeting moment as I stumbled out the door.

My driver grinned as he opened the door for me. "Put the frighteners on you, did they sir? Don't sweat it, my cousin's a Talismonger, they love putting on a show for the mundanes."

"Yes, uh, thanks," I said absently as I retreated into the dubious safety of the car.

Knowing that I wasn't going to be able to think about anything else until my curiosity was satisfied, I started flipping through the book. The moment I did, I felt a little better, the cover was synthleather and the pages weren't real paper. The contents, however, made up for my nervousness. The book was full of arcane symbols that purported to be spell formulae, guides to summoning various spirits, treatments on the nature of astral space and sorcery; all entwined with philosophical musings of a particularly hedonistic bent.

My commlink suddenly buzzing made me jump. When I realized it was just Chester getting back to me, I tossed the book onto the seat next to me and answered the call. "Morning, Chester, where the heck did you find this limo service?"

Chester listened to me as I explained about the meeting with Mr. Johnson. "I'll check the background of the limo company, see if there's any connection to Shiawase. What are you thinking, MFID?"

MFID was Shiawase's Market Forecasting and Information Division, an innocuous name that concealed the fact that the division housed all of the company's professional spies, fixers and Johnsons. Of course, with the level of autonomy each department has, MFID didn't hand all of Shiawase's shadow dealing, just the significant ones. "If so, I think we're dealing with a young turk. Too flamboyant and not enough respect, even to a perceived inferior, goes against Shiawase's principle of damashii. Look, Chester, what I need right now is some connections. If I'm going to dig us out of this hole I'm going to need gear and information."

"Don't worry, I know some people who know some people. I'll arrange a meet."

I breathed a sigh of relief. "Thanks, Chester, remind me to send you a few cases of those Hunter Valley wines that you like."

He grinned. "Make sure to mix in some whites for my ladyfriend."

That made me blink stupidly a few times. "Wow, uh, congratulations. I didn't realize you were courting."

"Oh, nothing like that, I met her at a dinner party last weekend. We got talking and I've taken her under my wing... so to speak. I'll have to introduce you."

Taking a deep breath, I tried to work out how to ask what I wanted to ask him next. "Um, Chester, there's something else... how can someone tell if they've... awakened?"

There was a long pause as Chester considered me with a level gaze, his dark eyes suddenly slightly scary. "Now why would you ask me about such a thing?"

"Right now, I don't trust anyone else," I admitted, close to pleading.

"There are tests," he answered after a moment. "As a corporate citizen, Shiawase would provide you with first rate facilities..."

"No," I interrupted, shaking my head, "I don't trust the company at this point in time, particularly not with MFID breathing down my neck."

Chester leant closer to the trideo. "Nathan, listen to me. No magician is entirely trustworthy, no deal is sweet and no time is the perfect time. If you have reason to suspect that you've awakened, while the chance is remote at your age, you need training. That's even more important that keeping HFS alive. In fact, I have half a mind to extract you from Shiawase myself."

Taking a deep breath, I concentrated on keeping my heartbeat slow and steady. "You know, I halfway wanted you to laugh me off. Tell me I was crazy."

"Near death experiences are a classic trigger for the awakening," Chester explained. "Besides, you're an intelligent man. If you're worried enough to ask the question, then denial can only harm you now."

"What are my alternatives if I don't trust corporate schemes?"

Chester steepled his hands as he considered the question, his breath hissing through his teeth. "You could find a street mage that is willing to test you or look up an initiatory group that offers the service privately. Every way incurs a certain amount of risk. There is also the solitary path... but I wouldn't recommend it without a spirit guide."

"Thank-you, Chester. I'll think about it carefully, I promise."

"Be safe, my friend," he said before disconnecting, leaving me alone with my thoughts.


The statement in my signature is false.
Re: No Time for Second Chances [message #63076 is a reply to message #62484] Thu, 09 August 2012 04:20 Go to previous messageGo to next message
Dr. Bender is currently offline  Dr. Bender
Messages: 1232
Registered: January 2005
Location: 47°9′S 126°43...
Chapter 3

In one way, it was fortunate that I'd been injured on a Thursday. It meant that I arrived back at my drekhole apartment Saturday morning with the whole day ahead of me to hammer out how the frag I was going to survive. Placing the book on my tiny breakfast table, I used a not insignificant portion of my water ration to make myself a cup of soycaff, sat and brooded with the steaming mug in hand.

Part of me wanted to liquefy HFS, skip town, buy a new name and face to start over. Maybe start up a new holding company and joining the corporate rat race. Unfortunately that wasn't my style and I wasn't about to leave Chester holding the bag either. Or maybe I was starting to get some sort of sick thrill out of all the spy games, to be honest I didn't exactly know why I wasn't running for the hills.

My commlink buzzed twice in succession, once to inform me that I'd received Chester's message and a second time to let me know that my Agent had finished his task. With nothing left to loose, I jacked in to get to work.

Chester hadn't wasted words, his message contained nothing but names, commcodes and a short description of the services each could provide. In addition, he'd listed some street mages and magical groups that could test for awakened potential. Strangely, the last name on the list wasn't a commcode, just an address that my browse program informed me was a back alley somewhere in the western suburbs.

Having had enough weirdness for the day, I set my magical problems aside and opened the file my Agent had ready for me. The top hit was a doozy, a small sports piece stuck in the back pages about the Shiawase Ronin Urban Brawl team mourning the death of Dr. Yoshinobu Takaga, a long standing member of their support team. Another linked file led to the Ronin's public node which had a picture of the mechanics and admin staff posing with the team, Takaga was right there kneeling in the front row, smiling as he leant against the Outrunner's combat bike.

Tragically, I could believe that Takaga could have been killed for his involvement with Urban Brawl as much as his work for Shiawase Armaments. As a country, Australia is sports-mad, every corporation who wants to do business sponsors at least one team. The value in positive advertising alone makes up for the expense, not that teams like the Ronin weren't profitable on their own. The Urban Brawl connection was also something I could investigate while international spy games were out of my league.

Looking at Chester's list again, I selected the first name on the list and clicked on the commcode hyperlink. I was worried that the call was going to ring out for a moment before it connected. "Hello?" a male voice asked cryptically.

"Greetings, I was referred to this number by Chester, am I speaking to Foresight?"

"And you are?"

I smiled at the non-confirmation. "Naka-udo-san."

The voice at the other end snorted. "Very well, Mr. Naka-udo, how can I help you?"

"I'm in the market for a new commlink, or commlink parts, as well as programs. May I send you my design specifications?"

Getting his agreement, I mailed my wishlist to him. He whistled, obviously impressed. "This is some serious hardware, Naka-udo-san. I hope you have time and money."

"Money, yes, but I'm short on time. I'm willing to compromise depending on available parts. I have the facilities for assembly, so no labour required."

"I'll have to dig around, see what's about. I can get back to you this afternoon if that's acceptable?"

Agreeing, I disconnected. Getting up, I started to pack, the first thing going into my briefcase being my simsense collection followed by my favourite casual clothing. I quickly realized that shopping was going to be a high priority, I needed to get back to basics and reinvent myself. For the first time in my life, I also considered buying a gun, not that I knew how to use one. Uploading all the relevant data on my commlink to my MSP's (Matrix Service Provider) backup storage, I wiped anything incriminating off my 'link before shutting it down. On the way out of the building, I stopped at a vending machine to buy a cheap disposable commlink that I could work with for the time being before heading onto the street.

I was forced to take a cab to a local car dealership intending to buy something cheap and serviceable like a Volkswagen Elektro but drove away in a Eurocar Westwind 2000 sports car worth over ten times the price. Truthfully, the saleman had hardly pitched the car to me before I was in the driver's seat, eager to gun the engine and leave everyone in my dust.

The car put a smile on my face all the way to World Square, where I reluctantly handed it over to valet parking. A quick shopping spree got me some new clothes, with several sets of armoured clothes in different styles in particular along with some form-fitting body armour to wear underneath. While I sat in a more upscale restaurant than I was accustomed to for lunch, feeling much safer in my new bulletproof clothing, I called an acquaintance of mine in Shiawase Mediatech and scalped two tickets for the next Urban Brawl game featuring the Shaiawase Ronin, which as my luck went just happened to be tonight. A second call to Janet confirmed that she was available in the evening and that she was an Urban Brawl fan, which surprised me even though it shouldn't have in the 'enlightened' 2060s. Old habits die hard.

Down in the lower levels of the arcology, away from prying eyes, I visited a certain gunstore that I'd had dealings with on behalf of HFS. A few words to the clerk got me into the back room where he hooked me up with his black market connection. So it was that I was the proud new owner of a Predator III heavy pistol and a pair of smartlink enabled sunglasses to help with my crappy aim. The bulk of it under my arm made me feel much better once I was back in my Westwind and powering down the highway out of the CBD.

I'd known a day like this might come the moment I established HFS, which was why I'd registered another company on the same day under a fake SIN (System Identification Number) that had no assets other than a particular piece of property on the north shore, taking advantage of the crash of '64 to conceal all evidence of its existence while quietly refurbishing it. Other than a small apartment complex on the upper floors, the lower floor contained a simple surgery and technical workbench as well as long term storage for some of my pet projects for HFS. Most importantly, the building also had a large garage for me to park the Westwind in, keeping it off the streets and out of sight. While I waited for Farsight to call me back, I spent the time productively wiping all the RFID chips in my new purchases with a HERF gun, literally blasting the little buggers with electromagnetic pulses so they couldn't be used to track me down.

Once that was done, I routed my commlink connection remotely through several nodes before Foresight could call, just as a precaution. Rather than call me in person, however, I received an extended list of available parts along with projected times for delivery. Selecting what I wanted, I sent my order back with the standard 10% downpayment. It wasn't long before I got instructions for the pickup point, a nice, friendly, busy, Stuffer Shack conveniently located on the way to pick Janet up from her apartment.

With time to kill, I was tempted to slot Soaring Harpy for the next part of the story but ended up stuffing the bag of chips into my bedside drawer for later. Instead, I lay down on the bed and started flipping through the book the old man had given me.

"Welcome, O callow apprentice of the mystic arts," I read aloud, "to your first step on the path to ultimate power. Magic is nothing more or less than the ability to bend reality to your will and, as one of the Chosen, it is your right to shape the world as you see fit... jeeze, who wrote this drivel?"

It didn't come as much of a surprise that the book was unattributed. Flipping past the rhetoric, I got down to some actual useful instructions. "Magic is the shaping of Mana, the energy source that exists in the astral plane. By imposing your will on Mana, you can bring about effects in both worlds, known as spells, conjure spirits and much, much more. Before you start on any of these advanced techniques, the most basic and safest use of the talent is Astral Perception. Astral Perception allows the mage or shaman to see the Astral plane around their meat body without projecting their spirit and leaving themselves vulnerable. Try this now; unfocus your eyes and allow your attention to drift as it will, then exert your will to push your perceptions beyond the physical. Methods that alter perceptions of reality can help induce the correct state of being."

All of which sounded like complete gobbledegook to me, but I was willing to try anything once. Unfocusing my eyes and letting my attention wander was the easy part. I hade no idea what 'exerting my will' meant, which left me doing a lot of futile straining, like I was sitting constipated on the loo. Giving up, I tossed the book aside and unzipped my pants, determined to get some quality relaxation time in before my date. As I stroked myself, my mind wandered back to the feelings of Soaring Harpy's body, the electric tingle crawling across her skin, the hard eagerness of her nipples, the powerful building force of her climax the moment before she peaked...

It felt like a sudden surge of power flowing through my body, pushing and pulling in directions that weren't supposed to exist. I felt my flesh melt painlessly, shrinking inside my clothes, my moan rising in pitch as breasts rose from my chest and my manhood slipped from my grip. Hyperventilating, I jumped up off the bed in a panic, stumbling as my pants fell into a pool around my feet. Running drunkenly over to the bathroom door, I slammed it open to look into the mirror that hung over the sink.

Staring back at me, wide-eyed, was the splitting image of Soaring Harpy, my new shirt hanging from her svelte body. The first thing that struck me was that Soaring Harpy had the sort of body that could only exist thanks to biosculpting. Her D-cups looked out of place on an athletic body with a twenty inch waist. Clasping my hands over my mouth, I stifled a scream.

"You do have impeccable taste," a new, feminine, voice whispered from behind me.

Spinning around, I discovered that the room was empty. Then, turning back around, I came face to face with my own doppelganger, our noses mere inches away. Squealing in fright, I fell over, bouncing on my padded ass as I scrambled backwards until I hit the edge of the bed. Throwing back her head, she laughed, her voice rich, smooth and seductive.

"Wh-what the fuck are you?!?" I screeched, feeling around for my gun which was somewhere inside the longcoat lying on the bed.

"I am known by many names," she whispered, slinking towards me, "whore, honeypot, prostitute, mistress, lover, bitch, slut, cunt, dominatrix... to name but a few."

I was just about to reach the handle of the Predator III when something intangible hit me. The spell spread through my skin, making me lose control of my limbs as I shuddered with need. Heat blossomed in my abdomen, spreading down my womanly canal as a powerful need gripped my entire body. Grasping my sodden underwear with both hands, it was all I could do to curl up into a ball, rubbing frantically as my juices trickled down my thighs.

"Your kind calls that spell 'Control Emotions'," she informed me, circling my prone form like a great cat considering her prey, "used well, it can incite lust, lower inhibitions and inflame passions. Its counterpart is known as 'Orgasm'..."

Gasping as my burning need was replaced by sudden and complete fulfilment, I writhed on the ground at her feet as a continuous wave of pleasure washed over me.

"...abd has the effect you are experiencing now," she finished. When she released the spell, I collaped in a sweaty heap, breathing heavily as my body tried to reclaim its breath. Squatting beside me, she reached down to stroke my cheek tenderly. "You altered your form with a spell called 'Human Form'. It's very versatile. To return to your regular form, all you have to do is let go of the spell. Unfortunately it only works on the willing, mores the pity."

"What are you?" I gasped the question, my breathing ragged.

Stradling me, she grabbed my hands, entwining our fingers together as she pinned my arms above my head. Looking down into my eyes, she grinned mischievously. "I'm the one whispering to you that you've denied yourself for too long. I'm the one prodding you down the path of fulfilment. Through me, you will be everything you ever dreamed because you are mine and we are one. My gift to you is power."

"Power doesn't come without a price."

"Gifts don't come with a price," she rebuked me. Leaning down, she nibbled my ear, sending a shiver down my spine. "All you have to do is let me in and everything you want will be yours."

Blinking, I found myself lying on the floor, alone, still wearing Soaring Harpy's body. Sitting up, I looked down at my tiny, manicured, hands and flexed the fingers, trying to reassure myself that everything was still real. My shirt was sticky with sweat and I was sitting in a wet spot. But then a smile spread across my face as a wicked idea occurred to me and before I knew it I was naked under the shower, learning more about a woman's body than I ever thought I'd know.

Oh, like you wouldn't in my place.

After drying myself off, it was hard letting the spell go. I watched my body expand, returning to its former decrepitude in the mirror. Ok, decrepitude was a bit strong but going from a smoking hot twenty-something elf in prime physical condition to a forty two year old man with self image issues was a bit jarring. Staring at myself in the mirror, however, I couldn't help but think my reflection's gaze was a little accusatory.

"Frag off," I told myself, starting to feel guilty, "this is what we wanted, right?"

Soaking a cloth in water, being careful to use as little as possible, I returned to the bedroom and scrubbed the wet spot for a while. As I was scrubbing, my elbow knocked the edge of the bed, making the book fall off and flip open to a random page. Curious, and willing to use anything as a distraction to rest so that my arm would stop aching, I picked up the book and read down the page.

"Guilt is the chain that binds the wageslave in the prison of society. By sloughing off our guilt over inconsequential matters, a metahuman can transcend to a higher level of existence, unburdened by the judgement of others..."

Intrigued, I continued reading.

#

>>>>> [LOGIN*#$NETRANGER;username=Magelight;password=************* ****************] <<<<<

>>>>>[ACCESS:MagicChat;verified=true]<<<<<

>>>>>[Ping?]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[Pong!]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[Jeeze, chummer, are you ever offline?]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[Not if I can help it, I like keeping my ear to the ground.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[Mind if I bounce something off you? I had a run in with a nasty bunch of slots; some sort of initiatory group. At first I thought they were a joke because they were using get this a combination of classic Satanic and neo-pagan symbology. Next thing I know, I'm getting my ass kicked by this fragging demonic howling blood spirit that nearly burned me the fuck alive. You wouldn't happen to have a line on who these drekheads might be, would you?]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[....]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[No, you did not just ellipsis me! Spill, you still owe me for Broken Hill.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[It's not that. Yes, I've heard of magic like that, rumours, but I can get a guy in here that knows more about this group than I do. Hold on.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[LOGIN*#$NETRANGER;username=Asymetrix;password=*********] <<<<<

>>>>>[ACCESS:MagicChat;verified=true]<<<<<

>>>>>[Hello?]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>>[Thank you for coming....]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[Magelight, where exactly did you run into these men and what were they doing?]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>>[Woah there! More than my life's worth, mate. Original said you knew more than he did. If what you have is worth it, I'm willing to trade paydata for paydata.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[Acceptable. From what Original has relayed, I believe you've had an encounter with an outfit known as Druids, Inc.]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>>[Druids? Sorry, I know druids; they weren't using the Tir Na nÓg tradition.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[Not druids, Druids, Inc. I understand the confusion; I'm told the name predates the awakening. Let's start at the beginning. Are you aware that certain magical lodges existed prior to the Awakening?]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>>[Well, sure, there were plenty of surviving shamanic religions. But if you're referring specifically to western traditions, you're talking about a bunch of rich old farts building old boy's networks and dressing it up with ritualistic bulldrek to make themselves feel special, right?]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[Essentially, yes. Unfortunately, quite a few of these well juiced old farts woke up one morning to discover that the bulldrek they'd been lip syncing to all those years actually started to work. Most magical groups of the time were fairly benign but for those groups with darker intents, magic became a path to unbridled excess.]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>>[He's talking about classic western Black Magic, chummer; the kind of people who take virgin sacrifices and Faustian bargains seriously.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[You're shitting me.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[I wish I was. Whatever they do, we know one thing: it works. If you don't know my rep, I make a living collecting bounties on paranormal threats. Bughunts, Shedim, toxics, rogue spirits, vampires and paranormal critters are all in a day's work for me. I've run into some nasty drek but if I see one of these guys hanging around, I know things are about to escalate. When I started running into them more frequently, I made it my job to keep tabs on them.]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>>[I was on a run with Asymetrix when I first ran into them. Fraggers had broken open a corporate biolab under Ashfield. Sick bastards were infecting people with HMHVV then using the victims in sacrificial rituals, blood magic and possession by some of the most twisted spirits I've ever run across. The place got torched in the crossfire but the fuckers managed to escape.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[Now, before we go on, something has to be made clear. Not every practitioner of the Black Magic tradition is like these 'twisted' mages. They're a bit egocentric and amoral but let's face it, we're shadowrunners, stones and glass houses and all that. Most members of the tradition still have lines they don't cross. The tradition emphasizes the acquisition of power and the fulfilment of desire but they're not psychopaths. In fact, I envy their outlook a little; at least they're honest and open, too many mages kid themselves about their motives.]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>>[All right, let me pony up something. I'm pretty sure I only faced one of these guys but he was slinging some major mojo around without breaking a sweat. Now, I like to think I'm one of the best spellslingers in the Australian shadows but this guy was tossing spells that would have had me on my knees.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[That scans from what I've seen of them. I'm not sure how they do it but they've got some way to mitigate drain that doesn't involve blood sacrifice. The members of the tradition that I interviewed suggested it might be part of some sort of 'spirit pact'.]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>>[And you buy that?]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[At this point, I'm not discounting anything. If I told more stories about this group here on Netranger, I'd be labelled a crackpot. I know how this drek sounds, believe me, I wish I hadn't seen it with my own eyes.]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>>[Try me, I pride myself on keeping an open mind.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[Very well. Are you familiar with the Shadowland BBS?]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>>>>>[I've had an account for over ten years.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[All right, you'll have to cast your memory back a bit to a post that hit in '57 about an organization called the Black Lod....]<<<<<
- Asymetrix

>^>>>[LOG-N*#$NETRANGER;user(ame=Ж;passw{ [fn30g30j%$#@^;a5{\

>>SUPERUSER ACCESS GRANTED

%>z^>$[ƧӋГЗПҀЗ.}/<&"<
- Ж

>> 48u14*8t#0#{Bl*kHamme^*#!5n}z><+...

>>%>[WARN=_US3R_OFF\/^3_Emergen&*#_Emergent 49-t jf4`+4494UT!!!

>>>>>[DISCONNECT:username=Asymetrix; UNSAFE TERMINATION.]<<<<<

>>>>>[METRIX!]<<<<<
- Original

>>%#_ 383= t30 8008)8$)$0110101010101010010101

>>>>>[FUCK! TRACE AND BURN! TRACE AND BU...]<<<<<
- Magelight

@^>^k>{ЩЗ ЩДЯПЗФ Ц.]\*"<#
- Ж

>>>>>[DISCONNECT:username=Magelight; UNSAFE TERMINATION.]<<<<<

>>ADMIN LOCK<<

>>>>>[DISCONNECT:username=Original; TERMINATED BY ADMIN.]<<<<<

>>INITIATE BUSHWACK CASCADE
>>DEPLOY: BLACKOUT
>>DEPLOY: JACKLOCK
>>DEPLOY: TRACE

>>>>>[DREK!]<<<<<
- Ж

>>>>>[This node 'aint big enough for both of us, pilgrim.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[DISCONNECT:username= Ж; ... Connection Term=^&#@0539!{+_

>>TERMINATION FAILED

>>USER UNRESPONSIVE, PLEASE CALL EMERGENCY SERVICES

#

"Oh my god," Janet muttered nervously, covering her mouth with her hands when she saw my new Westwind with me standing next to it in my brand new armoured formalwear. I'd gone for comfortable rather than ultra-modern conservative and the look suited me well. Janet, on the other hand, was dressed for an Urban Brawl game, wearing a tight Shiawase Ronin branded dress under a thick crop-top jacket, fishnet stockings and thigh high synthleather boots. "Now I feel underdressed."

"Nonsense, you look stunning," I said, opening the door for her. If simsense dating has taught me one thing, it's that a little bit of ye olden daye courtesy goes a long way. Also, it doesn't hurt to be an ultra-rich hunk with a thirteen inch penis.

"Wow, new car?" Janet asked as we barrelled down the highway, running her hands over the synthleather seats.

"I bought it this morning. You know, I've had a garage for years sitting empty," I explained, "never thought it was the right time... guess nearly getting your head blown off brings things into perspective."

She chuckled. "You know, my mother warned me about men like you."

I raised one eyebrow. "Men like me what?"

"Smooth talking middle aged men who blow money on fast cars and buy tickets to take younger women out on dates. You've probably got a mistress locked away in a Yakuza brothel and a wife you keep barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen..."

"Ha! Closest I've ever come to that description is slotting a chip," I chuckled. "Besides, my mother warned me about naughty nurses that get their thrills hanging out with dirty old men."

"Wow, good thing neither of us listen to our mothers," she said, grinning.

"They do seem intent on taking all the fun out of life, don't they?"

We chatted all the way to the airfield where I was able to park in a spot reserved for Shiawase corporate employees and escorted Janet into one of the blimps waiting to take everyone to the field. Urban Brawl is played in the middle of a disused area of a city known as a Brawl Zone, each three blocks wide by four blocks long. Started in the early part of the century as a way for gangs to settle their differences in a semi-controlled environment to limit property damage, Urban Brawl became one of the biggest sports in the world, outgrossing other ball games by a wide margin. The addition of firearms along with the random nature of the battlefields meant that traditional stadiums were out of the question, leading to the creation of heavily armoured airships that could loiter with minimal power expenditure.

Each team is composed of thirteen 'brawlers': 4 Scouts, 4 Bangers, 2 Heavies, 1 Blaster, 1 Outrider and 1 Medico. Scouts are the lightly armed and armoured players who generally move faster and act as cannon fodder. More experienced Scouts eventually get slightly heavier armour and become Bangers (from the old label 'gang bangers'). Heavies wore the same armour as Bangers only with better guns while the Blaster wears Scout armour but carries a gyro-mounted LMG. The Outrider is unique in that he or she is basically a Banger that rides a bike and is allowed to carry another player on the back seat as long as that player isn't carrying the ball.

Unlike most sports, both teams carry a soccer-sized ball made of dense plastifoam and brightly glowing paint. The goal is to get your ball into the enemy team's goal, a circle four meters in diameter at either end of the zone; as long as the ball is in contact with a piece of an 'offensive' brawler (all except the Outrider and the Medico) when he or she enters the goal area, the team scores. If the ball is dropped for 10 seconds or grabbed by one of the other team's offensive brawlers, that ball is declared 'dead' for that play. If a brawler cannot continue because of wounds sustained or he or she surrenders, they are 'disabled' and must wait where they are until the next play begins.

If you think the game sounds barbaric and dangerous, that's because it is. Deliberately killing another player is technically illegal but it still happens all the time (they are shooting live ammo at each other after all). Offsetting the lethality of the game is the abundance of cyberware. Ork and troll players also thrive in Urban Brawl, making the game one of the few ways talented brawlers can work their way out of the slums.

The pre-game commentary was already well underway as we stepped aboard. AR viewscreens gathered around us, showing the topology of the Brawl Zone, player profiles and equipment schematics while the commentators filled in time between advertisements. Declining the AR feeds for now, we made out way onto the observation deck and mingled with the crowd.

I hadn't gone five steps before my hand was clasped and shaken enthusiastically by a Japanese man with streaks of grey in his short hair wearing a formal Vashoon Island suit. "Nathan! I honestly didn't expect to see you here!"

"Nice to see you too, Shinji," I greeted with a warm smile that was only slightly forced. There are two types of Japanese working in Australia, those that acclimatize and will shake your hand in informal situations outside work and those that view their positions as a form of exile. The latter don't make it very far in the sales department where Shinji worked, Australian consumers don't take well to high-and-mighty attitudes at all. Heck, in certain circles, it'll get you geeked.

"And who would this gorgeous blossom on your arm be?" Shinji asked, trying to be smooth despite his relatively weak grasp of English. Still, he made her laugh.

"Shinji Nakamura, Janet Paige. Shinji here works for... Shiawase Nanotech this week, isn't it?"

"Ah!" he admitted with a grimace. "I get redeployed so often I swear I go through two pairs of shoes a week!"

"Janet here works for DocWagon."

I'll give Shinji credit, the only thing that gave away his surprise was a twitch of his eyebrows. "Oh, a doctor?"

"I wish," Janet chuckled, "I'm in nursing. I met Nathan on the job."

"Even better! I do wish we had some of your faces in our marketing division..."

"Now, now," I interrupted before Janet could say something that compromised her company, "we're not at work anymore, let's try to relax a little."

He grimaced. "As your companion said, I wish. I'm afraid this is what you Anglos would call a bussman's holiday for me."

"Oh? Big business going down?"

He gave me a sly wink before pointing out some gentlemen in tuxedos. "Guests from Genetique and Maramentos Murreta; our Mexican competitors."

I nodded, understanding his subtext. Mexico no longer existed, having been supplanted by Aztlan. Aztlan as a nation was basically a front for Aztechnology, one of the biggest AAA megas and a member of the corporate court.

Pointing at another group of Japanese businessmen who weren't wearing the Shiawase Vashoon Island uniform, Shinji lowered his voice to a whisper. "Pensodyne, subsidiary of the troubled Yametetsu corporation."

Another AAA megacorp; one going through a distinctly rough patch but still one of the world leaders in cybernetics, bioware, genetch and even the new field of nanotech.

He continued talking as he pointed out representatives in the crowd, one after the other. "Emerging Futures, from NeoNET; ADC, AIMR and Genecraft from Renraku; the two giving each other the evil eye are from Manadyne and Wuxing; and last but not least Cerebrotech AKA Ares Macrotechnology."

Janet looked impressed. "I didn't realize I'd been invited to a business meeting."

Shinji grinned. "It's not that bad but a lot of informal wheeling and dealing goes on. It's a bit of a détente where everyone can relax surrounded by completely neutral and heavily armed security forces."

"And they've got you holding the torch alone with all these heavies?" I asked incredulously.

"HA! Lord, no. No, tonight I'm Ms. Shinibata's personal assistant," he said, pointing out a striking elven woman. Her long hair was braided and held up in an elaborate circular weave. She was also wearing a red and white formal kimono patterned with orchids, reminiscent of the Miko from the Shinto shrine. Standing next to her was a little girl wearing a matching outfit that I guessed was her daughter from their similar features and pointed ears. Behind them stood a Japanese man who was shorter than Ms. Shinibata but held himself with the quiet confidence and unobtrusiveness of a professional bodyguard.

"Part Korean?" I asked, noting her height and slenderness, she was tall even for a Japanese elf.

"Chinese, Korean and Japanese," Shinji answered.

"So she's talented," I surmised.

"Great White Shark," Shinji said, clicking his teeth together.

Janet tightened her grip on my elbow meaningfully.

"Well, nice gossiping with you, Shinji," I said with a smile as I extracted us from the conversation, "maybe we'll be able to talk more during the game."

"I'll catch you around, I'm sure, nice meeting you Janet," Shinji called after us, waving forlornly as he was forced to get back to work.

"What was all that about her ancestry?" Janet asked incredulously.

I sighed. "The world is changing fast. Most of the executives at the home office would describe that fact as unfortunate."

She raised one eyebrow at me. "Seriously? This is the 60's..."

"I know, I know but you don't erase racial tensions that have lasted thousands of years in a few decades. It's much less of a thing here in Australia, thanks to the Shiawase policy of autonomy for their subdivisions, but the attitudes still trickle down from the top. Hate to admit it but the Japanese are only just starting to accept elves, she's very lucky to have been born here."

She muttered something about stupidity and racism that I agreed with wholeheartedly. Back in the last century, Australian had prided themselves on their acceptance of other ethnicities, even if that acceptance was occasionally tarnished. After the Awakening, that same attitude had transferred to metahumans and sapients of every variety. As long as you were willing to join Australian culture, we would welcome you with open arms.

We watched the lit-up Brawl Zone get bigger and bigger in the middle of the South Sydney Barrens as the blimp approached. The cloud of camera drones that hung in the air made the zone appear to glitter in the night, surrounded by darkened, crumbling, blocks that only housed the SINless and the desperate. After the Awakening, the city had been forced to abandon large portions of the city, leaving a strip of 'no man's land' between the city and the mana storm that stretched from the south coast and curved all the way up to the area where Sydney was boxed in by the Blue Mountains to the west. The bleak landscape of the barrens was dotted here and there with corporate facilities and military outposts but for the most part, the residents were on their own.

Curious, I selected the AR feed for the Ronin's home base, a prefab compound surrounded by heavily armed mercenaries. The team members were all still in the locker room awaiting the big start but the garage held some interest as the mechanics and armourers busied themselves getting the gear ready. Focusing on the Outrunner's bike, a heavily modified Suzuki that barely resembled anything in their main product line, I spotted an unfamiliar face. Focusing on her, I brought up her company profile.

Hamada Ayano, a moderately pretty Japanese woman in her early 20's, was a graduate of UNSW currently working on a doctorate in engineering. Apparently something of a child prodigy, I had to wonder how much of her beauty was natural and how much came from a surgeon's knife. With her hair kept out of her face with various clips and filling out her overalls the way she did, she was the model of a geek goddess as she lay on the ground tuning the engine block.

"Something catch your eye?" Janet asked, noticing what I was looking at.

"Just amazed, they've replaced Takaga already," I mumbled grimly.

She grimaced. "Oh, right, the guy that was killed, sorry. Wow, the Ronin lucked out; there aren't too many mechanics worthy enough to work on a high spec rig like that."

I was impressed. "You know your bikes?"

"Much to my mother's despair," she laughed. "Combat Biker's my sport of choice. Got a taste for it after I enlisted."

That made me raise my eyebrows. "ANZAC?"

"SY-MG," she replied, using the acronym for the Sydney Metropolitan Guard, "they put me through medical school. I was a field medic, had my own bike and everything. After I finished my four year tour, my qualifications got me a job with DocWagon."

"As a nurse? Surprised you're not a paramedic or a doctor..."

"We're rotated in and out," she grumbled. "It's a high risk, high pay, job. Very stressful, a lot of work goes into maintaining an employee's mental health and combat rediness."

"But you still do it for the thrill," I observed with a smirk.

She frowned at me. "You think I'm that easy to read, smarty-pants?"

"I wouldn't presume," I protested with mock-honesty that earned me an amused 'I've got you right where I want you' smirk.

Everyone started to settle down as the build-up to the start of the brawl began in earnest as the colour commentators were piped through our personal AR streams. Janet and I took our seats and ordered some drinks through the AR interface. I had to smile when she literally squealed with excitement. It took a moment for us to configure our AR settings the way we wanted them, though I kept changes minimal by filtering out the loud speaker's noise and transferring the commentary to a low whisper through my headset.

>>>>>[Welcome, welcome, welcome to URBAN BRAWL™, I'm Hank Ringo...]<<<<<
- Hank

>>>>>[... and I'm Asim Mizar...]<<<<<
- Asim

>>>>>[...and the Australian National Urban Brawl League is proud to present for your viewing pleasure game 12 of the season, Shiawase Ronin vs. The Redfern Sharks.]<<<<<
- Hank

>>>>>[That's right, Hank. Now, I don't know about you but I think all of us know the Ronin's reputation on the circuit as fearless contenders for the international league but I don't think I'm familiar with the Shark's rep.]<<<<<
- Asim

>>>>>[I'm not surprised, mate. The Sharks are newcomers to the national league with only three matches under their belts in this division. I'm told, however, that their reputation on the streets of Sydney is something else again having remained undefeated on the intercity circuit for their last thirteen games!]<<<<<
- Hank

>>>>>[Well, they better be bringing their A game tonight, Hank, the international league is a whole new level to what they may have experienced in the minors.]<<<<<
- Asim

>>>>>[Too right. But I've got to tell you that I'm liking these challengers. They might not have the Ronin's deep pockets but their line-up includes six trolls and seven orks and to be honest with you I can't wait to see these mighty gladiators pit raw meat and metahuman moxy against the chrome kings.]<<<<<
- Hank

>>>>>[You know me, I'll always put my faith good 'ol reliable chrome over fallible flesh any day, particularly after the Ronin's crushing defeat of Lofwyr's Lions last Saturday... and I think I see the representatives from Seader-Krupp squirming in their seats! HA-HA! Just kidding, Lofwyr, please don't hurt me.]<<<<<
- Asim

>>>>>[Speaking of tempting fate, if you'll direct your attention to camera 639, it seems one of the locals is trying to sneak past the outer perimeter to get into the Brawl Zone. I gotta say, Asim, not a smart move.]<<<<<
- Hank

>>>>>[Not at all, Hank, our boys on the ground aren't the types to laugh off these little jokes. Hopefully, however, they'll be able to subdue the offender with non-lethal for... OH! OH! OH THE METAHUMANITY! Was that really necessary?!? I can't believe the Australian Urban Brawl National League would condone such... such... wait, is that his spleen? Can we see that again in slow motion?]<<<<<
- Asim

Looking away from the slow motion replay of the man exploding from the waist up after being hit by an assault cannon round (while the colour commentators argued over exactly what the aerial organ in question was), I discretely scanned the Shiawase contingent. Shinibata was talking to the representative from Wuxing casually across the isle between their seats, though they were keeping their voices low. Shinji was in the seat directly behind her, his eyes downcast but ready to supply his mistress with anything she might require.

After a moment or two, I realized that Shinibata's daughter was staring right back at me, her large vividly green eyes unblinking. For a fleeting moment, she reminded me of a doll more than a little girl, her face an emotionless mask as she simply watched me. As far as I could tell, she wasn't even analysing or judging me in any way, she simply stared back at me.

"Look up," a familiar feminine voice said, coming from nowhere and seemingly only audible to me.

Doing as instructed, my gaze fell on two more men several rows behind Shinibata. One was unfamiliar but striking in a bad way. He was Japanese and definitely from the Empire by the way he held himself, sitting stiffly as he stared straight ahead. I placed him in his 50's and never a handsome man, though a scar that ran from his cheekbone down past his mouth on the right side wasn't doing him any favours. He also had a finger missing from his left hand that hadn't been replaced with cyberwear. Sitting next to him was an all too familiar face that made me turn back around before he saw me looking.

Mr. Johnson was trying to hide his nervousness in the moment that I glimpsed him. Luckily he'd been talking to the man next to him, facing partly away from me, or he might have noticed me. 'Sweating bullets' was an apt description for his posture and expression; it warmed my heart to know that I wasn't the only person being leaned on. Thought I had to wonder if he, and myself by proxy, were now working for Shiawase or the Yakuza.

Switching my AR view to the room's seating plan, the system cheerfully informed me that Mr. Johnson was in fact 'Haijime Saito', a 'marketing consultant' for Shiawase Mediatech. His companion was Yotomori Toto, head of the Agricultural department of Saiki Corporation's Sydney branch. He might as well have listed 'Shategashira' (the title of a regional Yakuza lieutenant) on his business card. The Saiki-rengo was naturally on Shiawase's radar as one of the major organized crime syndicates in Australia and maybe the only real competition nationally with the Triads.

Turning back to my AR screen, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. My instincts said that I'd stumbled into something far more dangerous than a simple extraction gone bad and my logical mind agreed. It didn't take an expert to put Mr. Johnson, the Yakuza, Takaga and Urban Brawl together and come up with match fixing. Problem was, if Mr. Johnson was in bed with the Yakuza, why did he need me to investigate Takaga's death? All together it made me wish I hadn't had to hand my Predator over to security.

The game started with great fanfare as both teams came running out of the gate to take the best fire positions early. I barely noticed, caught up in my thoughts and formulating ill-conceived theories. Despite that, I put on a good show of enjoying myself for Janet's sake and occupied her by asking questions about the game. My date more than enjoyed herself which made up for my lack of attention but my efforts at coming up with any logical scenario that fit the facts at my disposal were fruitless.

Two hours into the action, my bladder decided it had had enough and forced me to make my excuses as I got out of the chair. Careful to keep my face hidden from Mr. Johnson, I moved up the aisle and followed the signs to the men's toilet and found myself pleasantly alone in peace and quiet with my thoughts as I sought relief. Stepping out again, my newfound serenity was shattered when I found little Ms. Shinibata standing before me, staring up at me with an utterly blank expression on her face. For several long seconds, I didn't know what to do or say, so we stared at each other. The hallway was strangely empty, the sound of cheers somehow distant despite the source only being a few meters and a corner away.

Kneeling, I put on a friendly smile. Despite only being around twelve, I was struck by the perfect symmetry of her features. There was no doubt in my mind that this girl was going to break hearts in a few years. "Hey, little girl, are you lost?" I asked, feeling like a cross between a lame old man and a dirty one.

Holding out her hand, she opened it to show me several small objects. The first was an origami crane, expertly folded out of what looks to be some sort of corporate document. The second was a sealed plastic clip-lock bag containing a lock of black hair. Last of all was what looked to be a gold ring etched with strange symbols that I didn't recognize. "I can give you what you want," she said seriously, her tone of voice unlike any little girl I'd ever met before. "Take the ring as a token of sincerity. Find Cook, he will know what to do."

"I'm sorry, I don't understand," I said, blinking in confusion.

"Take it!" she snapped, her mouth sneering in a very adult manner while a hint of desperation crept into her eyes. "We can help each other. If you get me home, I can give you what you want..."

"Ok," I said in a soft, soothing, voice, taking the objects from her small hand and putting them in my pocket. "I'll help but can't your mother help you get home?"

The emotion she'd shown faded from her face and she just stared at me blankly again, like she didn't understand what I was asking. A moment later, the Shinibata's bodyguard came around the corner, moving with intense purpose. "Ms. Shinibata," he said sternly, "please come with me, your mother is very worried."

Rising to my feet, I couldn't see the bodyguard's eyes thanks to his opaque glasses but I could feel his gaze on me as the little girl turned and walked past him. "I just asked if she was lost," I lied, feeling like I should say something. After a moment or two, the bodyguard simply turned and walked back the way he came.

Returning to my seat with more questions than answers, I had to resist the temptation to examine the objects burning a hole in my pocket. Instead, I focused on paying attention to Janet and blending into the crowd as much as possible.

It happened in the second last quarter of the game. The left half of the Brawl Zone was dominated by a wide six-lane road filled with abandoned cars and debris that was, none the less, the clearest pathway between goal zones. The Ronin's Outrider was barrelling up the laneway at insane speeds, weaving over, under and through the obstacles thanks to the cybernetically enhanced skills of the rigger driving it. The Heavy was riding along, laying down suppressing fire as they blazed a path for the ball carrier.

A moment later, the bike exploded. The crowd was on its feet, some cheering while others gasped in dismay as the burning bodies of the two Ronin rolled across the tarmac. Glancing over my shoulder, I found the reactions of the key players quite telling. Mr. Johnson stared, shocked to his core. His companion's expression had darkened, his frown alone promising that someone would pay for whatever slight had offended him in that moment. By contrast, Ms. Shinibata had a viciously victorious smile on her face while her Wuxing counterpart looked very pleased with himself as he typed something into an invisible (to everyone but him) AR keyboard. Little Ms. Shinibata was still staring at me, which was even more unnerving than the first time.

Janet was shocked, so I held her hand reassuringly while switching my AR view to the pits where the support team was staring at their monitors in despair. A time out was called so that the paramedics could retrieve the bodies. Scanning the faces of the support staff, it didn't take me long to realize that Hamada Ayano was missing. Then when I attempted to call up her profile, I received nothing but a 'no such user exists' message.

The rest of the match was a foregone conclusion as the Sharks stomped the Ronin into the dirt. Without fire support or the Outrider's mobility, the Ronin were forced into defensive positions where the Sharks could flank them with impunity. In the end, it didn't even come down to scoring goals, the Sharks disabled the entire Ronin team and the match of forfeit. Previous damage to the bike that hadn't been properly fixed by the pit crew was blamed and that was that, the blimp turned around to wander back to the airfield while the post-game analysis dissected every play.

We were both smiling when I pulled the Westwind up to the curb outside Janet's apartment. For a few seconds we sat in silence as Janet seemed to consider something. I considered saying something too but I was afraid to come across as pushy.

"She wants to invite you in," a feminine voice whispered in my ear, "but she's afraid. Overcome her fear as I've shown you."

A million arguments against what I was doing formed in my head as I shaped the spell. I was too old, she was too young, we were from different companies, she deserved someone better, I had no right... but all those reasons were overcome. Janet was the most wonderful woman I'd ever met and if wanting to be with her was wrong then I didn't want to be right. Leaning over the handbreak, I released the spell with a stroke of her cheek.

We kissed, passionately, the way you think only happens in the movies and bad romance novels. We didn't waste our time with words for the rest of the night.

#

>>>>>[Check the newsfeeds, kiddies, we've got our second hit on Shiawase in three days! Somethin' going on? Cook, you out there at all?]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>>[Who bombs an apartment block in this day and age? <tisk-tisk> Sloppy work.]<<<<<
- Executioner

>>>>>[So I checked the building's records. The apartment belonged to one Nathan McArthur, a researcher in Shiawase Finance. Anyone got a tip on why someone might want to take out a poor 'ol wageslave counting days to retirement?]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>>[I've done business with him before. He runs a grey market exchange that specializes in converting Shiawase Scrip into Nuyen; useful guy to know if your street doc doesn't have a line on cutting edge Shiawase 'ware.]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>>[Mr. McArthur, or should I say Dr. McArthur, isn't your average wageslave. I've sold him some items in the past and naturally I got curious so I did some legwork. 42 years old, lifetime Shiawase corporate citizen, scored highly in his aptitude tests in high school and did his Bachelor of Accounting at UNSW. Moving from their into Shiawase Finance, he worked for 10 years before attending UNSW again to get his doctorate in Computer Sciences. During his second stint at UNSW he met the infamous Chester of Chester, Fielding and Luger. After completing his doctorate, Shiawase stuck him right back into a data research and management position in Shiawase Finance, possibly a point of contention between him and the company.

My insiders tell me that he's one of their best legal snoops, his analysis is highly prized by upper level management, so much so that he'll never rise through the ranks. There are police records of him being involved in some heated domestic disputes with his family a few years ago, after which his family was moved to Neo-Tokyo. It was only after that that he got involved with the grey market.

One thing I will say about him from personal experience, he knows his 'links.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>>[Dawww, so nice to see a wageslave flower into a beautiful hacker. I think I'm gonna cry.]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>>[Woah, Chester? Chester the freekin' dragon lawyer Chester?!?]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>>[Yes, it seems that even dragons need a degree to practice law, laughable as that sounds. Dr. McArthur doesn't just know him, however, they're business partners.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>>[Holeeee Drek. Well, he's certainly got more balls than brains, wonder how deep in dragon drek he's landed himself.]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>>[It 'aint dragons out for his blood, chummer. Someone just put the word out there's ten large on McArthur's head.]<<<<<
- Executioner

>>>>>[Thinking of collecting?]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>>[Pffft, I don't feel like working for the Yakuza pro bono.]<<<<<
- Executioner

>>>>>[Wait, it's Yak money? The Yaks were on the warpath last night shaking down every bookie in town for info on who rigged the match with the Ronin last night. Now the Triads are beating their chests and making growling noises in their general direction.]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>>[News just in from my inside man, McArthur got winged the day Kosko crashed the Shiawase cafeteria. He spent a day in a DocWagon clinic.]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>>[The plot thickens.]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>>[I can't see McArthur attempting to rig an Urban Brawl game. Everyone knows the syndicates control that action and McArthur's a smart man who knows the score.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>>[Thinking of proposing?]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>>[Ok, I'm back for a bit, what did I miss?]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[Just another night in the shadows, chummer.]<<<<<
- Larikin


The statement in my signature is false.
Re: No Time for Second Chances [message #63253 is a reply to message #62484] Sun, 12 August 2012 09:23 Go to previous messageGo to next message
Dr. Bender is currently offline  Dr. Bender
Messages: 1232
Registered: January 2005
Location: 47°9′S 126°43...
Chapter 4

Waking up with Janet clinging to me was the greatest feeling I'd ever experienced, even if the sheets did need a bit of a clean and we both needed showers quite badly. Unable to extricate myself from under her, I picked up my commlink and inserted an earplug in order to catch the morning news. What I saw made me wish I hadn't.

My apartment was a smoking wreck, fire department drones spraying flame retardant foam into the scorched hole in the side of the block. My heart rate kicked up a notch and I almost panicked when, for a moment, I considered the idea that someone might know I'd been at the brawl with Janet last night. But I'd paid uncertified nuyen for the tickets, which weren't under my name, so the only person who could make me for sure was Shinji. The thought wasn't comforting but I wasn't dead, which meant whoever bombed my apartment still didn't know I might be here.

"Wha...?" Janet mumbled, stirring in reaction to my sudden nervousness.

Leaning over, I kissed her forehead. "Something's come up," I whispered, "I have to go."

Her eyes fluttered open as she clung to me tighter, looking up at me with her doe-like eyes. "No, stay with me."

"I'm sorry," I said, and it broke my heart, "my apartment was bombed."

She blinked several times before suddenly sitting up. "Your what?!?"

I switched on her trideo and flicked over to the news before extricating myself and sliding out of bed. Putting my clothes on one by one as she watched, I was about to walk out the door when she ran over and slammed her palm into the doorframe, barring my way. "No you tell me what the Frag this is about!" she demanded.

"I can't, it's better if you don't know anything," I admitted, shaking my head.

"Better for me or you?"

"Better for you!" I exclaimed, trying not to raise my voice. "Janet, the longer I stay here the more... the more I'm putting you in danger. If I thought this was going to happen, I wouldn't have invited you last night."

"Just tell me what the frag is going on!"

"I can't!"

We stood in stony silence for a moment as we glared at each other. Finally, she removed her hand and let me past. Pausing at the door, I looked over my shoulder at her back. "I'm sorry."

"Frag you," she snapped.

I felt like drek walking out to the car, telling myself I was doing the right thing over and over. Next thing I knew, I was parking the Westwind inside my safehouse, having driven over on autopilot as my brain tried to sort out the facts into a cohesive picture. The only thing I managed to ascertain, however, was that I still didn't have key pieces of the puzzle, and I wasn't going to get those without a new 'link.

Fortunately, the box in the trunk of my Westwind would take care of that. The pieces weren't hard to put together in the workshop, most of it was standard plug and play anyway. While the OS booted and my Agent loaded up my programs for me, I went and took a shower so that I was fresh and ready to go by the time the process was complete an hour later.

The Fairlight Masamune was to commlinks in '65 what the Firlight Excalibur had been to decks. Despite being a top of the line rig, I'd still decked it out with serious upgrades including a hot sim modified datajack connection. The OS I'd loaded was my own heavily modified version of a Mitsuhama product, enabling me to upgrade the response of the 'link as well as onboard hardening to protect it from programs that might burn the chips. Foresight had also provided the programs that I'd asked for, mostly cutting edge attack, mask and other hacker progs I didn't have time to come up with myself. I also used my own Data Search program, which was better than anything I knew currently on the market.

All of which was overkill for a dive into Shiawase's systems. Before I did that, however, I linked into my safehouse's security systems as a precaution and to keep an eye on my meatbod. I didn't use my own passcodes to access the Shiawase system but I knew enough about everyone else in the office to use all of theirs. So it was that, as far as the Shiawase systems were concerned, Ms. Nakatomi 'Horrible' Hoshi had logged on to do a spot of work after hours.

Masquerading as a manager got me deeper into the system than I was usually allowed. Accessing personnel records was not long a breeze, I discovered that the managers could see more information, including bathroom breaks and stationary useage. My first search for Hamada Ayano, however, turned up nothing. Not even a file on record. Outside searches for her enrolment into UNSW turned up nothing either, she was a ghost, never having existed except for that one night in the pits of the Shiawase Ronin.

My own personnel file came with a warning that I was supposed to be apprehended on sight. I chalked that up to the influence of Mr. Johnson and moved on to his personnel file. Haijime Saito was, apparently, nothing but a mild mannered middle manager for Shiawase Mediatech. Considering that his file was quite a bit larger than the short description I was seeing warranted, I discretely downloaded a copy to my 'link for cracking later. I did the same for Ms. Hitomi Shinibata, whose file was several megapulses too large. Her daughter, however, turned out to be another ghost. There wasn't even a birth record in Shiawase Meditech's system.

Leaving a back door for myself in the Shiawase system, I pulled out to start the decryption process on the files as well as a data search for Yotomori Toto, the probable Yakuza connection. With those progs running, I hacked into Chester's commlink and placed a call.

He picked up after the first ring. "Nathan, is that you?"

"You've seen the news?" I asked without identifying myself. I knew Chester would catch on.

"Yes, most dramatic. What did you stumble into?"

"I think someone's playing a game with the Yakuza but I don't know who or what. Look, I'm blown no matter how this pans out. Do you want to buy out my stake in HFS?"

There was a long pause before the answer came. "No."

"Do you want to make me an embezzler?"

"I don't think you can afford to make more enemies right now. I've heard there's a ten thousand nuyen price on your head, which is enough to make every street rat keep one eye out for your face. I'm sorry, my friend, but it wouldn't be smart for me to buy out a dead man."

There's a saying on the streets 'never deal with a dragon'. Now, I'm not about to sell dragons short, they're insanely intelligent and immortal by all accounts. But in reality, they backstab just like any other exec. I wasn't expecting any less. "Just tell me straight up, Chester, are you gunning for me too?"

He snorted. "Ten grand wouldn't pay my rent and you're more valuable to me alive if you can manage it. For the sake of our friendship, you have nothing to fear from me."

Well, it was something. "Thank you," I said before closing the call.

Yotomori Toto had his name mentioned in some surprising corners of the Matrix. Screamsheet articles were expected but fundraising dinners for the Sydney Council and visits with school children and orphans seemed out of character until I remembered he was technically a high level executive of the Saiki Corporation. Even the most bold journalists fell short of naming him the Shategashira of the Sydney gumi (a branch of a Yakuza 'rengo'). He was the sort of person Knight Errant would dream of pinching while knowing that it was impossible.

A bleep informed me that Saito's file was finished processing, so I switched over. For a member of MFID, Saito's resume wasn't spectacular. The son of a Shiawase executive in Neo-Tokyo, exiled to Australia after bringing shame to his family by dating a metahuman of undisclosed species. His records read like a man desperate to prove something which fit with the character of the man I knew as well as his connection to the Yakuza. Vaguely, I wondered if Haijime Saito was now passing through a Megalodon's digestive tract. The thought was comforting.

Looking through his previous assignments with the MFID, I found a connection to Takaga. Four years ago in his first job with Shiawase Australasia, Saito had been assigned protection duty to the Shiawase Ronin. Mentally connecting the dots, I could see the makings of a small sabotage and match-fixing ring. Saito was the middle man, giving Takaga his marching orders while taking all the risk on behalf of his Yakuza handlers.

"But if Takaga's dead, they would have gotten someone else to sabotage the bike," I muttered to myself, "but that doesn't jibe with Saito's shock... unless they didn't."

If the Yakuza hadn't been able to find a replacement for Takaga, someone else had. That would explain Saito's shock and Toto's anger; he'd just lost a fat credstick thinking that the fix wasn't on when it still was. My chances of seeing Saito again were dropping rapidly, which was the first good news I'd had all day. But then, who the hell else would fix the match?

Leaving that question aside, I opened Ms. Shinibata's file only to be disappointed. Her work history contained a lot of references, codenames and hyperlinks that referenced would lead to other parts of the Shiawase systems. I was guessing those parts would be locked behind glaciers of IC, so I moved diving back into Shiawase's systems down my priority list to a last resort. I did manage to glean two facts: she was listed as having a daughter named Kumiko Shinibata and her current project was listed simply as 'Hakutou', the Japanese word for the White Peach.

Finding data on Kumiko was a pain, I had to discard automatic searches using my Agent and browse the 'trix personally. Even then, I only came up with two unhelpful references. The first was that there was a 'Shinibata Kumiko' listed with the names of dead Shiawase citizens in the shrine at Shiawase Tower. Secondly was a story in a local newspaper about a little girl who had simply dropped dead in the middle of magical fundamentals class in a Shiawase sponsored primary school. Staring out from the article at me, smiling like an angel in her Miko robes, was Shinibata Kumiko, age 11 when she died in 2063.

I was still staring at her when my vision started to fragment and static assaulted my ears. Quickly bringing up my security system, I swore as the picture to all my outside cameras suddenly went dark all at once. Flicking the security system onto automatic, I logged out of full simsense, ran an ECCM program to clean up my signal, took cover under my desk and drew my Predator III out of its holster, the smartlink connecting immediately to my HUD. The screech of tires from both the front and back door let me know exactly how much trouble I was in, even though I was blind to what was going on outside.

My two turreted drones armed with box-fed SMGs emerged from their housings attached to the ceiling and swivelled to face the two doors at either end of the warehouse. I'd placed my desk in the middle of the warehouse floor deliberately. On one side of the steel desk was my workshop and a single door to the back alleyway outside. The other side faced the street and had the garage door as well as a single door to the outside. My Westwind was parked directly in front of the door, giving me some cover from that angle. On my right as I faced the garage door was the stairs up to the apartment above. To the left were the palettes of miscellaneous product along with a loading drone that could move items onto a delivery truck. Taking control of the loading drone, I manoeuvred it through my workshop, raising the forklift up to chest height and pointing it at the back door. After that there wasn't much to do but sit and wait in dead silence and pray.

The sound of breaking glass heralded their first move as metal canisters bounced across the floor, spewing smoke into the air. I flicked through thermographic imaging on the drone's sensors into ultrasound but even that sensor was being blocked by white noise pitched too high for the human ear to detect. The only comforting thought I had was that they couldn't see me as much as I couldn't see them.

Unfortunately, my indecision cost me that advantage. Moments after the chaff grenades were in, the doors on both sides were ripped off their hinges by twin explosions. I didn't bother aiming, I just set the SMG pointing at the garage door to saturate area with autofire while the other made short burst through the back door. Kicking the loading drone into gear, it surged forward. I heard a scream and a sickening squealch right before it slammed into the doorframe and stuck there.

Return fire was light, gouging divots in the paint of the Westwind as the enemy fired blind from cover. I wanted to return fire but didn't want to give away my position, so I kept my head down and relied on the view from the drones as much as possible. In the view from the Loading drone, I could see a Japanese man in a tactical flak jacket and insect-like goggles wielding a Franchi SPAS-22 combat shotgun futilely trying to force the drone out of the doorway. He took a couple of shots at it but barely dented the chassis, proving that they build loading drones to last. Several loud 'thoonk' noises from the garage door area preceded a series of explosions that blew the defence drones into burning shrapnel, making me glad I was still hiding under my desk. Then some smart fragger threw a stun grenade through the door that put a dent in the hood of the Westwind before rolling to a halt next to my leg.

I kicked it away by pure reflex which was lucky but the bad angle meant it only slid a meter or two away before going off. The concussion hit me like a truck, the noise deafening me and the heat of the flash giving me a prickly sunburn-like feeling down my right side. Next thing I knew, my Predator was ripped out of my hand and I was on the floor, staring down the barrel of an Ares Alpha Combatgun with underslung grenade launcher, moments away from death.

She came through the skylight, dropping feet first through the glass trailing a rappelling line as she landed lightly on her feet right behind the Yakuza pointing his gun at me. The long blade in her right hand sliced cleanly through the man's throat so fast that I barely saw the blur as it passed through the air. The Ingram Smartgun in her other hand stuttered as she span in place, short bursts hitting the enemies closest to her with deadly precision.

One of the Yakuza still standing turned and fired his rifle at her on full auto over the hood of the Westwind. She didn't even flinch as the bullets flattened and bounced against her armour, though I was betting its effectiveness had been enhanced with magic. Her return fire was nearly contemptuous as she riddled him with bullets. While she was distracted, the last remaining Yakuza jumped out from his hiding place behind one of the palettes, screaming as he primed his underslung grenade launcher. Unfortunately for him, my Predator was lying on the floor still connected to my commlink and I could see his foot in full view of the smartlink. Triggering the gun remotely, I watched him topple as he foot disintegrated from the heavy pistol blast, the barrel of the grenade launcher dipping down at the floor moments before he pulled the trigger. There wasn't much left of him after that.

Only then did I get a chance to actually look at her. Her armour was composed of hardened plates painted in grey and blue urban camo pattern, definitely milspec, with a full face helmet that obviously included an AR enabled viewplate and rebreather. Her sword appeared to be a modern construction even though it was obviously enchanted, though I knew intellectually there wasn't any rule that said a modern sword couldn't be magical, it just didn't seem right somehow. Without a word, she hauled me up by my forearm like I weighed nothing, clinched me tight around the chest under my arms and triggered something on her belt. Motors whirred as we were yanked up into the air along the rope, through the skylight and into the cabin of a Hughes WK-2 Stallion helicopter.

"Wait, wait, wait," I protested, "my gun! My car!"

"Go back after them if you think they're worth taking a bullet!" she admonished as stepped over me and into the pilot's seat, her voice masked by a sound modulator.

"Ok," I said, hopping out of the chopper and running for the stairs down to my apartment.

"What the FRAG?!?" she shouted after me.

Jumping down the steps several at a time, I slammed into the wall at the bottom hard in my haste but ignored the pain as I burst into my bedroom. I didn't bother with anything other than the book, scooping it up and sprinting right back up the stairs. Diving back into the cabin, I yelled for her to go as I grabbed onto anything that came to hand for dear life. The helicopter lurched up into the air, the sound of bullets pelting the fuselage only worrying us for a moment before we were well out of range.

"You know, I thought about installing a self destruct device," I told her as I crawled into the passenger seat, "but I thought it would have been overly dramatic."

Not a second later, the building behind us exploded, sending a ball of fire rolling into the sky. The shockwave tossed the chopper around like a child's toy for a moment before we wobbled back on course. "That's ok, I brought my own," she snickered.

Staring wide eyed over my shoulder at the conflagration, I turned to her with the same expression on my face. "Who the frag are you anyway?"

Activating the chopper's autopilot, she reached up, unlocked the environmental seal of her armour and pulled the helmet over her head. Brown hair cascaded over her shoulders as Janet smiled at me. "Call me Cook," she said, leaning over to kiss me on the cheek.

#

>>>>>[Well, sheee-it! The Knight is going ape out there! I just caught some comms chatter about a building going up on the North Shore, anyone scan?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[Yeah, I saw the fireball clear across the river.]<<<<<
- Thornbird

>>>>>[It gets worse. I just saw an FRT VTOL streak past with the air traffic parting before it like Moses was onboard.]<<<<<
- AxE.om

>>>>>[From what I can hear, a couple of patrol cops responded to reports of gunfire, now they're in a running battle with a bunch of 'heavily armed Asian males'.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[You think that's bad, check this. Shiawase corpsec just raided a Bunraku parlour in Chatswood alongside a KE SWAT team. The drek has officially hit the fan between Shiawase and the Saiki-rengo.]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>>[Lover's tiff.]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>>[Looks like KE knows which side of its bread is buttered after all.]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>>[You crazy? KE is Ares, they don't owe Shiawase drek.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[Not so fast, Shiawase is on the Sydney Corporate Advisory Board. They still have pull on KE every time that municipal policing contract comes around.]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>>[So, Yaks frag with Shiawase, McArthur frags with Yaks, Yaks frag with McArthur and now Shiawase frags with Yaks... is McArthur a bigger noise than anyone guessed or what? WTF is going on here?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[If this is all even linked to McArthur. Everyone 'knows' that the Yaks rigged the Ronin's match last night and now Shiawase could be drawing links between the Yaks and the Takaga hit. Not that it matters if there is a clear connection, one thing both sides understand it's that retribution needs to be swift and merciless, guilt and innocence is secondary to the message of swiftly delivered punishment.]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>>[So where does McArthur even fit in all that mess?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[Maybe he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Um, guys, you might want to check the job listings over at OzShadow BBS. <drool>]<<<<<
- Executioner

>>>>>[Oh yeah; Merry Christmas.]<<<<<
- Larikin

#

The Stallion landed on the back of a flatbed truck parked in an empty industrial area, guided in by one of Cook's rigger friends who was waiting for us when we hopped out of the chopper. He was an older dwarf with a close cropped beard that smoked a cheroot the size of a chair leg and wore army surplus fatigues complete with dog tags. "What the frag did you do to my bird?" he demanded the moment Cook's feet touched concrete, eyeing the dents and scratches in the armour from the hail of bullets.

"Mac, meet Stumpy," Cook introduced us. I barely managed to keep my expression neutral. "Morning," I greeted emotionlessly.

He looked up at me, squinting like he was looking straight through me. "Wow, not a peep, princess? Snow White here tell you I just got out of the mines with my six brothers or do you think I just ran away from the circus? Think my mom was cruel to name me Gimli?"

"Nice to meet you, sir," I responded, determined not to get dragged into his game, "I owe you and Cook here my life."

After taking a long drag on his cigar, he waved his left hand through the air, probably hitting some sort of AR control. The Stallion's rotorblades retracted and a shipping container folded itself around the chopper, expertly concealing it. "Spare it, mate, my only interest in your ass is the nuyen. Now fuck off, both of yer."

"Come on," Cook said, pulling me away insistently. "You pissed him off," she muttered."

"Catch 22," I sneered, "one way he plays me for human guilt, the other way I'm a racist."

"Yeah and you didn't let him have his fun."

"Frag him, then."

She pushed me into a Bulldog stepvan, one of the largest and toughest of the breed. Inside, I found myself staring at what amounted to a small arsenal. "Fight any wars lately?"

"In the middle of one right now," she growled, pulling the door shut behind her before flopping into the passenger seat and crossing her legs. "So, I'm guessing you have questions?"

Beyond feeling like an abused idiot, I threw my anger into the abyss along with my pride. "Probably not the ones you think. Who are you working for?"

She blinked at me for a moment or two before chuckling. "He called himself Mr. Johnson."

"Sure but you did background checks, pounded the pavement, put your ear to the ground..."

"And came up with nothing because I had nothing to go on," she explained. "The deal was organized through one of my fixers, nuyen was placed in an escrow account and my brief was laughably simple. Keep an eye on you and make sure you stay alive. As long as you live to see sunset tomorrow, I get paid. You want to know who hired me, try thinking up all the people who want to keep you alive. Should be a lot easier than counting the number of people who want you dead"

Sure, it was a list with one name on it: Chester. "And letting me seduce you was the best way to stay close to me," I concluded, feeling nothing. Really, it was my fault for letting my dick do my thinking for me.

She smirked. "Don't sell yourself short, you certainly know how to show a girl a good time. Maybe you can teach me that orgasm spell."

Shrugging, I set that line of questioning aside. "So your only stake in this is the money?"

The moment her lips pursed, I knew it wasn't. "I have a team..."

"Shadowrunners," I interrupted.

"Yes, shadowrunners. Actually I should say a few days ago, I had a team. Thursday morning, I woke up after a late night party to find out that the rest of my team had cut me out of a deal. I believe you met Kosko, tall, well built, chrome spikes..."

"We never got a chance to formally introduce ourselves," I retorted snidely.

"I wasn't that hurt, honestly, biz is biz. Of course, Wordworm bought it hacking the Shiawase Tower air defence grid and Kosko remains missing along with Ringer, our rigger. Maybe if I'd been in on it things might not have gone south. Still, my companion's lack of judgement aside, I hope you don't hold what happened against us."

"Biz is biz, like you said," I answered bitterly, "and it was a Shiawase bullet that nearly killed me. Do you have any idea who might have hired Kosko and the others to kill Takaga?"

"What makes you think he's really dead?" she asked, leaning forward in her chair. "You know, I've planned and executed dozens of corporate extraction jobs. My team was in on quite a few of them. In my experience, extractions come from an outside entity about fifty percent of the time, from the subject themselves a quarter of the time with the remainder generally leading to their current employer as a sort of confidence scam. Sometimes it's just plain old interdepartmental rivalry or 'aggressive headhunting'. What I've never seen, however, is any runner stupid enough to extract a man from the middle of a warzone, guns blazing."

"So your theory is that someone wanted everyone to think Takaga was dead for some reason?"

"Who else would be able to benefit from the sabotage of the Ronin's Outrider last night? There wasn't any time for anyone else to organize another fix."

"Then all that the Yaks have to do is trace the betting back to a big winner."

"Uh, yeah," she said, her face falling, "that's where my theory falls apart, there weren't any big winners. Seems like Takaga's death shattered confidence in the Ronin's ability to take the win."

I sighed, genuinely disappointed that someone else wasn't about to hand me the solution on a platter. "Ok, then I have a question for you. What connects you to Shinibata Kumiko?"

She blinked at me, looking for all the world like she didn't know who I was talking about for a moment. "Shinibata? Shinji's boss?"

"Close," I answered, reaching into my pocket, "I'm talking about her daughter."

Her brow furrowed. "None that I know of; never even knew she existed until last night."

"Well, she asked me to give you these," I said, pulling out the paper crane and the bag of hair and holding them out for her. "She was waiting for me outside the men's room."

Looking perplexed, she took the items from me and examined them. "Do we know if this is her hair?"

I shook my head. "What do you make of the crane?"

"Doesn't mean anything to me," she said, examining it every which way before unfolding it. "But it is a Shiawase document. Think you can tell if it's fake?"

"Easy," I said, taking it from her. One of gizmos I'd added to my commlink was an RFID scanner. Running it over the paper got me several beeps along with a readout of the info stored on the microscopic chips. "Ok, this paper definitely comes from Shiawase. You could get arrested walking through the door of a Shiawase affiliated building holding this thing. As for what it says, I don't have a fragging clue."

Holding it up for her to see, I showed Cook what looked like a thumaturgical formula; just a bunch of weird symbols, lines and scribbles without any context. "Looks to me like part of a ritual," she said with a shrug, "could be anything. I'd suggest showing it to an expert but we can't risk leaking paydata." Holding up the hair, she smiled. "But this is interesting. Lots of things can be done with a sympathetic link like this but something tells me your girl wants us to find whoever this lock of hair belongs to. I can do that. Question is, do we trust it?"

"Wouldn't it be easier to lock me in a safehouse somewhere until tomorrow night?"

She snorted. "Sorry, sweetcheeks, but it's only a matter of time for either the Yakuza or Shiawase to find us. People know my team was involved, so they'll be gunning for me too. I took this job because I need to get the heat off my back as much as you do. To do that, we'll need leverage, money and a ticket out of town."

"So, we follow up on the lead?"

"You got another one?"

I shook my head.

"Then I guess we don't have much choice." Rising gracefully to her feet, she wrapped her arms around my neck and leant forward, pinning me against a steel cabinet door. Stiffening like a board, I barely reacted to her, so she gave me a pout. "I'm sorry for lying to you," she apologized, "but that doesn't mean we can't still be friends."

The way she said friends left no doubt what she really meant. "Sure, but I have something to confess first."

"Oh, now you're keeping secrets from me?" she asked, cooing like she was talking to a puppy that was trying to impress her.

"I'm transgendered," I said bluntly.

She smirked, tapping me on the nose with her finger. "That's ok, sweetness, I'm bisexual."

Leaving me staring into space as my brain dealt with that bombshell, she jumped into the driver's seat and started the engine. A few minutes later, we were cruising through the city, heading south towards the tunnel. We emerged from under the river in the midst of the giant traffic jam that was the CBD. When I found myself in the World Square arcology for a second time in a week, I was expecting Cook to lead me to one of the dingy apartments on the lower levels. Instead, I found myself waiting outside one of the upper level suites wishing I'd combed my hair more thoroughly.

"Going to tell me why we're here?" I asked in a low voice.

"A friend of mine," she answered cryptically. We'd both changed in the back of the Bulldog before we'd come up. Now she was wearing a simple t-shirt and skinny jeans with an armoured leather jacket. Even in more practical casual clothes, she managed to look smart, which made me jealous. I thought she was going to say more when the door opened, interrupting her.

The man that opened the door, grinning broadly, had hair that was in a worse state than mine was, which made me feel more comfortable. He made up for it by wearing his boxers without pants and a bathrobe with no shirt, showing off his carpet of chest hair. He was also scrawny, hadn't shaved, obviously hadn't bathed yet today and wore fluffy pink bunny slippers on his feet. To top it off, he was carrying a multicoloured cocktail in his right hand and wore sunglasses despite the fact we were indoors.

"Cookie!" he greeted enthusiastically, giving her a fierce hug. She gave me a look over his shoulder that warned me not to ask.

"Good to see you, Glaive," she said without managing quite as much enthusiasm before extricating herself. Wrinkling her nose, she shook her head at him. "You really need to bathe more, you know."

"Bah! Haven't you heard? There's a water shortage; I'm just doing my bit for the great land of Oz. Well, hello, who's your friend."

My eyes narrowed at his tone but Cook found it amusing. "Glaive, meet Honeypot, my new decker. Honey, please be nice to Glaive here, he's an old chummer of mine."

I'd slotted enough 'day in the life' sims to know what it was like being a woman but Glaive's roaming eyes still made me want to punch him in the throat. After much soul-searching on the way in the car, I'd finally given in and shown Cook the ring Kumiko gave me. She identified it as a 'sustaining focus' and showed me how to bond to it. Now, I could cast my Human Form spell and keep it up indefinitely without having to worry about maintaining it myself.

The clothes were borrowed from Cook, so we had a similar build. I was about an inch or two taller and an A-cup to Cook's C so that my need for a bra was greatly reduced. I also think Cook was worried I wouldn't be able to handle having anything larger, or maybe she worried that I'd want to handle them too much. Becoming a light-skinned Caucasian blonde, I'd kept my hair fairly short so that I could go for the punk look with the application of some hair gel from Cook's bag of emergency fashion goodies. Even though I knew it was necessary for the look, uncombed hair still annoyed me; a fact that I blamed that on decades of corporate indoctrination.

For clothes, I was borrowing a tight, torn, sleeveless, quilted midriff shirt under an even more shredded fishnet shirt. The quilted shirt was black with a crimson anarchy symbol emblazoned on the front while the fishnet was a vibrant dark blue. Low-slung, pre-faded, brown synthleather biker pants tucked into low-heeled knee-high black boots showed off a significant portion of my midriff. The ripped green camo jacket I'd borrowed was obviously armoured but worked with the look and fell under the armour restriction laws. Since I wasn't carrying a gun, it was simply a non-issue to the law.

When Cook had gotten herself involved in dressing me up (possibly fulfilling some little girl doll fantasies), she'd started throwing accessories at me. My lack of tattoos didn't help make me look convincing, particularly on my bare arms, so she'd made me wear some velcro and spandex straps down my left arm with a non-lethal shock glove that could give an enemy an electric jolt with a punch or a touch. The right arm got some jewellery including a stainless steel band on my upper arm, a thick synthleather band around my wrist that matched my belt and some chains. Naturally, my ring went with all that on my right hand. Light blue lipstick, nail polish and dark eyeliner with some clip-on 'urban tribe' earrings completed the look.

The idea was that nobody in their right mind would ever equate me with Nathan McArthur. In that respect, I think we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. The way Glaive leered at me, it was certainly working on him. When Cook called me Honeypot, I immediately wished she'd talked about codenames before she had a chance to extemporize. Keeping my expression neutral, if a little bored, I just let him look not wanting to cramp Cook's style.

"Well, come on in, ladies," he invited breathily, "there's always room for more in case-de-glaive."

Cook gave him a reprimand in the form of a light slap in the chest as she pushed past him into the apartment. I kept one eye on him as I sauntered past, not trusting him to keep his hands to himself. Once I'd gotten some distance, I turned my attention to the apartment and immediately wondered what I'd been doing with the last 42 years of my life. Glaive lived in opulence. The living room had a giant bay window that took up both floors of the two-story apartment, complete with a garden and a small swimming pool/spa arrangement. Several rooms led off from the main area along with stairs to the upper balcony. The polished wooden floorboards looked real, the rug underneath his coffee table was the skin of a griffin and the ancient stone tablets that decorated the walls looked genuine.

To top it all off, he had Nadja Daviar in his spa. Obviously not the real Nadja Daviar, head of the Draco Foundation and chosen heir to Dunkelzahn's legacy, but there were plenty of joygirls who made good money impersonating celebrities. "You didn't tell me this was a party, Mr. Glaive," Nadja scolded him imperiously without getting up. "My fee doubles for group work."

"Calm your skanky ass down," Glaive rebuffed, pointing the pink umbrella in his drink at her, "they're unexpected visitors."

"Glaive, I need to use your lodge," Cook said with a broad smile, reminding me of an alligator.

He laughed weakly, like she'd made a bad joke. "Nice one, Cookie. You know nobody uses my lodge. You girls like a drink? I got Tequila or New Coronas in the fridge..."

"Come on, be a sport chummer," Cook wheedled. "Come on, you can play with Honey while I'm busy."

My eyebrows could have raised the roof. Glaive looked between me and Cook, caught between a rock and a particular hard place that was tenting his boxers. Looking over at Nadja, who gave me a salacious wink, I decided not to protest.

Cook decided to play dirty, giving him a coy, promising, look as she straightened hi robe. "And I will owe you and extra special favour."

He gulped. "Keys are on the kitchen counter."

Thanking him, Cook grabbed the keys and headed into one of the adjoining rooms, leaving me alone with both the horny bastard and the prostitute giving me the eye. Glaive sauntered over to me like he thought he was Casanova, putting his drink down on the coffee table as he passed. "Say, Honey, why don't we jump in the pool so the three of us can get to know each other better."

Folding my arms over my chest, I looked over at Nadja. "Got your certificate?" I asked. In moments, I had her credentials in my e-mail. One of the great things about Australia is that legalized prostitution's been the norm for a hundred years or more. A requirement for being a working girl was a weekly check-up, with most girls only working with clients that could provide the same.

I was about to give Glaive the evil eye when he turned over the lapel of his bathrobe, showing off a gold broach pinned to it. "Resistance to Disease," he explained, "haven't taken it off since I was nine."

One benefit of knowing your way around a hacking program or two is falsifying documents. Thankfully, I had my own paperwork on hand (Shiawase company policy that had become an ingrained habit) so I just transposed a few details from Nadja's into mine and sent her that. She bought it. I might have felt guilty if I wasn't clean.

There's a reason Nadja Daviar's one of the most popular subjects for celebrity lookalike prostitutes. She's one of the few high-rolling women who could have made her fortune modelling instead of running a AA corp. If her lookalike was anything to go by, she was also one of the few women who looked just as good naked. Glaive sat on the seat a foot under water while I rode him with the spa's jet churning the water around us; still wearing his bathrobe trailed across the floor behind him where it wouldn't get wet with his arms resting on the lip of the pool. My arms rested on his shoulders or wrapped around his neck while Nadja pressed against my back, squeezing my breast as her fingers stroked down my stomach to manipulate my clitoris. Fortunately, Nadja had also provided Glaive with a double-walled 'real feel' watertight condom that added a little bit of length and girth to an otherwise disappointing member.

When I came it was like a thunderclap. My vision went white like I was staring into the sun. When my vision cleared, I was standing in the middle of a field, surrounded by white roses. The sun was pleasantly warm on my skin and the air caressed my body softly, like being wrapped in a blanket. When HER hands slid around me, what little doubt about what I was sensing left me. I moaned in pleasure as she whispered secrets to me in a tongue I somehow understood only on a subconscious level. For a moment, it felt like we merged and my spirit sang in religious ecstasy as I finally, truly, understood who SHE was and what I am.

When the vision passed, I found myself lying on a towel that had been laid out across the floor with my butt resting on the lip of the pool and Nadja's head between my thighs. Glaive was busy pounding her from behind, though he came off less like a jackhammer and more like a woodpecker. Again, Nadja more than made up for it. When I came, my juice shot into her face which set Glaive off like a rocket. After that, he sat back to rest and watch while the two of us had our own fun.

"Call me!" Nadja shouted after me as I left with Cook, re-dressed and feeling fresh.

"You didn't put the whammy on the poor girl, did you?" Cook asked with a knowing chuckle.

I shook my head. "I've slotted a lot of porn in my time. So, what did you get?"

"Not much, wherever she's being held is warded. But I know where."

She flicked me a file from her commlink that contained a map with the co-ordinates as we entered the elevator before pressing the button for our level in the garage. "That can't be right," I mumbled, thinking aloud, "nobody lives that close to the Blue Mountains."

"It's perfectly safe... if you're a hundred meters or so underground."

"A secret facility? I don't think I want to know why they keep a little girl locked up underground like that."

"Assuming it's Kimiko's hair, which I find likely. The Sixth World is full of some sick drek, believe me. Say, you seem... different. And I'm not talking about that cute post-coital glow you've got either."

Stepping a little closer to her, I smirked. "Maybe I'm finding that tits suit me."

She smiled up at me. "I think you might be right," she whispered before I cut her off with a kiss.

I knew she was playing me but that was ok. Now I was playing her back.

The afternoon was spent in hours of long, tedious, legwork. Cook called in every favour she could think of while I snuck as deeply into the Shiawase system as I dared. As the sun set, we stood on top of an apartment building, looking out over Blacktown Railway Station, a sprawling complex that combined the old and new between the commuters coming to and from work and the disused tracks that stretched to the west and northwest.

"My dad told me his parents used to take him on trips up to Katoomba to see the mountains," Cook said, using her binoculars to focus on the mana storms that hovered in the distance. "Told me back then he'd been bored out of his mind but now he wished he could take me there."

"Lota people were trapped up there when the storms hit," I murmured, remembering the 'survivors documentaries' that had been shown on the trideo when I was a kid. "Most of the people in Katoomba fled west, though, it was worse down in Wollongong and the towns up north. Tens of thousands of people, only one highway. If the storms didn't get you, chances are the wraiths did. Hornsby and Waterfall stations terminate the north and south lines respectively and officially Blacktown now terminates the western line; everything beyond here is nothing but barrens filled with SINless, ghouls and paracritters."

"Tell me something I don't know."

"As the city grew between the influx of refugees from the outlying towns and corporate interests looking for a foothold on the continent it became obvious that the city needed to grow, fast. Apartment blocks went up in record time despite mana storms and meganuyen was eventually thrown into the maglev rail system, all at the behest of the Japanacorps including Shiawase. They just didn't tell the public about the underground network they were building to try and reconnect the freight routes with the mainland."

Cook blinked. "But the point of setting up shop in Sydney was to force succession..."

"Eventually, yeah, but not back when they started; Australia became a cornucopia of magical phenomenon overnight and everyone wanted a piece of the pie. You know the sort of money they make for Australian Telesma on overseas markets, I'm sure. This was also right after the Megas forced through extraterritoriality, I can only suspect that the idea of shattering the Australian government and turning the whole nation into a corporate paradise crossed someone's mind at some point."

"But you're talking about miles and miles of tunnels."

"Which was why the project was eventually scrapped but instead of just abandoning the tunnels, they repurposed them to support underground research facilities. After all, where's a better place to study the mana storms from but..."

"Underground!" Cook exclaimed, smacking herself on the side of the head. "Of course, even Storm Wraiths can't tunnel through the fragging Earth!"

"So theoretically all we have to do is catch a train," I said with a shrug. "How hard can it be?"

Cook groaned. "Never, ever, say that again. Besides, it's not enough to get in there, we have to get out again with whatever leverage we can manage."

"Well, good thing one of us happens to be a drek-hot decker," I said, grinning broadly as I brought up a hologram of the rail network. "Shiawase doesn't protect its supply lines quite as well as it does its paydata, unfortunately. Well, fortunately, I guess now. All I have to do is spoof a shipment of telesma to our facility, we sneak into one of the crates with some oxygen and supplies and wait out the two hour journey. We do what needs to be done, get in another outbound crate and get shipped back out with no-one the wiser."

"You can guarantee we won't get packed in some storeroom with no way out?"

"Yes. And if something goes wrong and the crate we're in is misplaced, Shiawase uses drones for grunt work like that. I can hack the system and get the drones to dig us out."

"Better idea than digging our way through with an industrial drill or earth elemental, I guess," she shrugged.

"Wouldn't work, they'll have seismographs looking for that sort of thing. Walking down the tunnel isn't an option either; even if you could travel that fast, sensors would detect your passage and you'd run right into the big guys with guns."

"Where the frag did you learn to plan a 'run?" she asked, incredulous.

"I'm an analyst. What do you think Shiawase gets me to analyse? Sure, there are stock reports and a bunch of other drek but the fun stuff is what they call 'emergency planning and situation management' or sometimes 'product repositioning'. What is the effect or potential effect of rapid changes in the marketplace?"

"So you're telling me that when a runner gets a job from a Shiawase Johnson, somewhere down the line it's because of you?"

"Way, way, WAY down the line, and not necessarily me but likely someone like me. Executives spend ninety percent of their time on the politics, they don't have time to keep tabs on everything that goes on. The MFID is busy protecting assets from people like you... er, us I mean, so someone has to do the grunt work that an Agent can't do. That's what wageslaves are for."

Cook nodded sagely as she stared at the holographic map of the railway. "So, what will we find when we get down there?"

I sighed, "Not a bloomin' clue."

#

>>>>>[Well, chummers and chuminskis, let us have a moment of silence for poor McArthur-san, shot dead at the age of 42.]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>>[Damn, I was starting to root for that guy.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[FRAG! I owe Original 50¥.]<<<<<
- Larikin

>>>>>[KE found his body in an apartment block in Hurstville, decapitated execution style. Dental and DNA records confirm it's him.]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>>[Bugger. Looks like the Yaks finally got 'im.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[Buddy of mine in Chinatown says he saw some Shiawase suits lunching with Toto at the Fong Gai Yuk Restaurant. Guess they kissed and made up.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>>[That was quick. Maybe Mac was behind the Takaga sabotage scam after all. Wouldn't be the first time a wageslave bit the hand that fed him.]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>>[You'd know all about that, wouldn't you?]<<<<<
- AxE.om

>>>>>[Mac wouldn't be the first sacrificial lamb used to smooth over a wrinkle, he won't be the last. Still, I wonder how his friend Chester is taking the news.]<<<<<
- Thornbird

>>>>>[Darn skippy, considering he just got handed Heterodyne Financial Solutions on a silver platter. What, you think a Dragon's going to get caught up in sentiment against the second biggest crime syndicate in Oz and one of the biggest Megas in the world? Please.]<<<<<
- The Accountant

>>>>>[Hey, I'm a lizard and even I think that's cold.]<<<<<
- Ophidion

>>>>>[Has ANYONE heard from Cook's and company? I'm getting worried Mac's not going to be the last to catch the fallout on this.]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[Even if someone had heard from Cook, Wordworm, Kosko or Ringer, they wouldn't say drek on a public board. Not even Netranger, no offence Ned.]<<<<<
- Stumpy

>>>>>[None taken. While we're mourning the dead, you might want to pause for a moment of silence for Asymetrix. He was taken off life support at 18:00. Anyone itching for payback should contact either Magelight or Original on these boards.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Bring your A game, chummers, this one's gonna get wet.]<<<<<
- Magelight



The statement in my signature is false.
Re: No Time for Second Chances [message #63490 is a reply to message #62484] Wed, 15 August 2012 18:55 Go to previous messageGo to next message
Dr. Bender is currently offline  Dr. Bender
Messages: 1232
Registered: January 2005
Location: 47°9′S 126°43...
Chapter 5

"You know, I just realized something," I whispered through the sub-vocal microphone as we waited together in the dark.

"What?" Cook asked in the same hushed tone.

"I've hardly eaten since I got out of hospital."

"So? Too late to be hungry now."

"That's just it, I'm not hungry; at all. I should be fraggin' starving by now."

She sighed impatiently. "We can work it out later. Time."

Conveniently, everyone knows that sometimes people and things get locked in shipping containers that shouldn't. To avoid lawsuits, corps had measures in place so that anyone trapped inside a shipping container could open it from the inside. Assuming there wasn't stuff piled in front of the door or some other impediment. We got lucky, I didn't even have to hack my way into the system, we just pressed the button and stepped out into the loading area of a secret underground research station that could have been the set for a simsense flick. Closing the crate back up, no-one would know that we were ever there.

We'd debated for hours on disguises. In the end, we'd agreed on computer maintenance techs, the sort of people nobody in Shiawase really looks hard at. The uniforms came from one of Cook's contacts in the shadow community through another alias of hers. Some thoughtful 'runner had even reinforced the clothes with armour in case things went south and we were wearing form fitting body armour underneath it just in case. Gloves concealed my ring, which was maintaining a Human Form spell that made me look like an older Japanese man while Cook used her natural form. One look at us and most Shiawase employees would assume there was a Simpai/Kohai (mentor/student) relationship between us and automatically talk to me; which was good, since I was the one who knew Shiawase etiquette and could speak Japanese if the occasion called for it.

The storage bay was an enormous, dull, concrete room filled with a maze of shipping crates. Steel beams reinforced the ceiling and there were several overhead walkways painted bright orange around the walls. Following one led us to the lone wageslave who watched the drones carry out all the work, a bored soul who obviously didn't get much exercise. While I distracted him pretending to look for a work order, Cook gave him a shot from her Narcojet pistol, putting him to sleep. It took both of us to ease him back into his chair before I got to work, jacking into the system.

Good IC is expensive unless you happen to be a company that builds IC as a core business, like Mitsuhama. Shiawase Australasia gets around the problem by strategically placing 'firewall nodes' between parts of their sensitive systems, making it very hard to crack in from outside but easier if you're on the inside already. In a trice, I had ID cards coded for us along with a vague map of the facility.

"Christ, this place is huge," Cook hissed under her breath.

"Those look like protein vats," I pointed out, "right near these labs here. Bioware R&D? Cloning? All of the above?"

"Thaumaturgy labs over the other side," Cook observed, "let's see if porky's commlink can tell us anything about what's being shipped where."

It was a good idea, wish I'd thought of it. 'Porky's' commlink had a record of expected shipments, deliveries and destinations. One entry stood out to me. "Know any good reason for a wizard to want a Catty Kleiner doll?" I asked.

"Bingo," she agreed, grinning at me.

"Yeah, unfortunately it was delivered there," I pointed to a room above us at the opposite end of the facility. "That's the high security wing. I can spoof a work order to get us in there but I don't see us walking around with a little girl without someone taking notice."

"We're not here for the girl, we need paydata," Cook replied grimly. "Spoof the work order, we can take this maintenance tunnel here most of the way. Come on."

The maintenance tunnels were dark and hot. Several hovering security drones scanned our IDs as we walked by but thankfully they held up under scrutiny. The facility was fairly austere, keeping with the concrete and stainless steel theme for the most part with thick bulkheads for doors at regular intervals. After climbing a latter to the upper floors, we finally emerged into an area that actually looked fit for human habitation. AR 'windows' showed picturesque countryside scenes at regular intervals in the corridor as various staff members in lab coats passed us by without a second glance. Security only gathered at checkpoints between areas, their armoured bulk and non-lethal weaponry providing the illusion of safety. Even the guards didn't accost us, content to allow the security system to interrogate IDs and let us walk on by.

That stopped when we reached the maximum security checkpoint. Luckily, Cook had stashed her Narcojet pistol in her toolbox, which was filled with so much metal and plastic junk that its silhouette was indistinguishable when we passed through the x-ray scanner. After that we had to pause to let one of the guards scan us for cyberware but thankfully all we had between us was my datajack. Another guard gave Cook's toolbox a token search, which was a tense moment until I was sure he wasn't about to dig deeper and find the Narcojet. Handing the work over with a smile was also tense but I kept my cool and we were finally allowed past.

"They had some watcher spirits," Cook whispered after we turned a corner, "we were ok, I took care of it."

"How?" I asked, curious.

"Aura masking... you should look into it after you initiate."

Taking her word for it, I set my mind to walking briskly forward like I was going somewhere and tried not to think about spirits suddenly materializing and squashing us both like bugs.

But it wasn't spirits that materialized out of nowhere. I was about to turn a corner when my nose smacked straight into something's stomach. "Sumimasen!" I apologized, bowing reflexively as I rubbed my nose before looking up into a pair of familiar, cold, silver eyes.

Kosko looked down on me like I was a wad of dog dirt on his boot. "Get the frag out of my face, breather," he snarled, shoving me aside with a negligent wave of his hand as he pushed past us. Cook had her head down, mimicking my bow so that her cap concealed her face.

Turning the corner, we didn't have to pretend to be alarmed as an excuse to walk faster. "Did he get a look at you?" I asked over my shoulder.

"I don't know," Cook answered. "Drek, I don't think so. What the frag is that idiot..."

"Shiawase turned him," I interrupted, coming to the conclusion that she didn't want to. She didn't answer, she didn't have to.

I'd expected to arrive at some sort of residential area. Instead, what we found were observation cells with two-way mirrors allowing people in the hallways to observe the prisoners inside. The cells themselves were padded white rooms, like something you'd expect to find in an insane asylum. Each subject we passed was different, some seemed catatonic, others mumbled or sung to themselves while still more lay on beds, jacked into the matrix. I almost passed completely by one cell when I realized I recognized the occupant.

Hamada Ayano looked like she was sleeping peacefully, only her eyes moving rapidly under her eyelids. The datajack sticking out of her temple betrayed what was really going on. "Wait," I stopped Cook with one hand, "she's Takaga's replacement."

Without asking for more, Cook tapped the window to bring up Ayano's paperwork in an AR screen. "Patient file and name redacted. They're running her through a psych evaluation and rehabilitation program for... gender dysphoria? What the frag?"

"We need to find a jackpoint," I muttered, dark emotions rising as I turned on my heel and stalked away. Ayano's plight had hit me a little close to home. "I need to know what the frag is going on in this place."

"Stick to the plan, talk to the girl first," Cook insisted. Reluctantly, I nodded in agreement.

The final cell at the end of the hallway didn't have observation windows; it was a steel bulkhead that would have taken high explosives to rip through. Not that it would have been that easy anyway thanks to the cameras watching the entrance. Spoofing the cameras was easy, hacking through the maglock without setting off an alarm or getting myself geeked by black IC was harder. When the door finally opened, the scene inside was almost anticlimactic.

The hexagonal room looked like a child's bedroom, complete with a chest full of toys. No child's bedroom, however, had ever been this neat, nor had any child ever just stood perfectly still in the centre of the room, staring blankly off into space. There were several more AR windows giving the illusion that there was nothing but a pane of glass between us and a lush rainforest with leaves stirring in a gentle breeze. Kumiko was wearing a plain white patient's gown and just stared at us as we entered, her face nothing but a mask.

"You came," she observed dryly.

Closing the door behind me, I knelt in front of her and put my hand on her shoulder. "Yes, I'm here Kumiko. Now we're in trouble, lots and lots of trouble. Can you help us?"

"Mac," Cook interupted nervously, "that's not Kumiko Shinibata."

Glancing over my shoulder, I scowled at her. "You think I don't get that? We don't have a lot of options."

"Yes," Kumiko answered my original question, "I can help." Walking over to her bed, she reached under the mattress and removed a chip from her hiding place. Holding it out for me to take, she just waited impassively, just staring at me with her vivid green eyes.

Taking the chip, I turned it over in my hand. It was black, no markings, and a little dusty. Blowing into the sockets to clear them out, I sat on the bed and slotted the chip into the simsense module.

"Woah, woah, woah," Cook interjected, "that's a bad idea."

"If this is what we need, we can get out of here," I explained myself. "But we need to know."

"Why the frag would she just hand us that?" Cook asked me, her glare intense. "There could be anything on that chip; it could fry your fraggin' brain, slothead!"

"I plan on being careful, don't worry," I reassured her, "just keep a lookout."

"What about her?" she asked, pointing at Kumiko.

"She wants to go home," I said with a shrug, "quid pro quo and all that, right?"

Without further ado, I jacked in. The world fell away, replaced by my commlink's internal VR structure, a simple black void filled with floating shapes that represented the internal systems. I hadn't had time to customize the interface at all or install a theme, though by using the default I saved some processing power for more important things. Before I ran the chip, I ran my analysis programs, checking for signs of IC or encryption. There wasn't any, so I took a deep breath and dived in.

I found myself standing in a laboratory surrounded by glass tubes filled with blobs of flesh hooked up to various tubes. It wasn't anything shocking, just developing organs and other bioware for mass distribution. Ms. Shinibata walked out from behind one of the tubes, smiling at me like I was an old friend come to visit.

"Konichiwa," she greeted warmly, with an ingratiating bow, "thank you for taking the time to review Project Hakutou, I'm sure you'll agree that this new line of research will be one of Shiawase's most promising explorations into the future. Please walk with me."

The camera followed her into the next room, an octagonal 'dome' that contained a gold cage attached to a generator. The floor and walls were inscribed with mystic runes rendered in luminescent paint. Inside the cage, floating just over the floor, was what I could only describe as a rip in reality. It reminded me of the pictures I'd seen of the Watergate Rift left in the wake of President Dunkelzahn's death, only smaller.

"The accident that ended Project Argonaut may still reap future benefits to Shiawase through the rogue spirit that entered out world so abruptly," Shinibata explained, her ingratiating demeanour never wavering. "As you can see, this Orihalcum Faraday Cage keeps the rift created contained by creating, in layman's terms, a duel-natured electric fence to keep other spirits from crossing into our world. Fortunately, no other spirits have even attempted to cross over, so we believe the precautions that we have taken will be more than a match for the task if this changes."

We continued walking and I noticed a 'cut' in the simsense recording as we stepped across the threshold. The new room was another magical laboratory, this time with two bodies on beds in the middle of the room. One was cut open, revealing more metal inside it than meat, while the other looked perfectly human. Between the two stood Kumiko wearing a plain white yukata, her eyes impassively following the camera with unnerving intensity.

"The free spirit we have managed to bind in the body of my daughter Kumiko has a number of extraordinary powers that I believe we may be able to emulate. On my right you can see and example of the current pinnacle of our competitor's cybernetic achievements: the magical art of Cybermancy. As you know, through magical rituals we can bind a person's spirit to their body, keeping them alive beyond the point where their loss of Essence would otherwise cause their death. Unfortunately, this ability comes at great cost to the subject and life expectancy plummets as a result. To solve this problem, I propose that we can leverage Shiawase Meditech's assets in the field of Bioware and Genetech. Rather than bind a spirit to a crude body of meat and chrome, we may be able to transfer one's spirit to an entirely new, perfect, form like the one to my right."

She moved around to put her hands on her daughter's shoulders, showing teeth as she smiled with painted lips. Kumiko just stood there, look for all the world like a doll in her mother's arms.

"The implications for Shiawase and the world are profound," Shinibata continued. "By extracting, reshaping and re-merging a metahuman spirit with a new meat body, we could be on the cusp of transcending illness and even death. In the short term, I'm sure you can imagine the applications of this research in the military as well as the field of espionage. We may even find a way to heal the loss of essence experienced by victims of HMHVV infected persons or those poor magicians and adepts suffering from burnout..."

I paused the recording and exited, switching to the second file on the chip. In the blink of an eye, I was back in the same lab with the two benches, only this time there were two people strapped to the benches. Kumiko was just standing between their feet staring straight ahead as Shinibata and other mages in labcoats looked on, their gaze glassy and distant. All the while, the two figures on the beds convulsed, screaming. Finally the one on the left flatlined, falling limp while the other fell unconscious.

Opening the next file, I winced as I saw the man from the last video futilely trying to kick through the reinforced plexiglass door of his cell, obviously raging even though nobody on our side of the glass could hear what he was saying. Shinibata stood close to the camera as she spoke to the viewer. "Subject 1b showing signs of severe mental trauma," she explained with a weary sigh. "I had hoped that providing 1a with a similar body to his old one would reduce this issue. However, I have discovered that the former inhabitant of 1b was obtained from a high security facility... maybe 1a has inherited his new body's brain chemistry? We really should have started tests with clone bodies like I said, tell Dr. Ablehamst where he can stick it, Raymond."

The next file automatically ran when that one ended. Shinibata was sitting behind a desk, addressing the camera as she worked. "We managed to trace back Subject 1b's biological records to his point of origin. Medication based on his old medical records has been effective, though his mental state has deteriorated to the point where he has asked repeatedly to self-terminate. We are currently attempting to treat him for depression but I'm afraid the trauma of the transference has damaged his spirit. Recommend that we put the next one asleep before we try it again."

Closing that file before it could open the next one, I skipped several recordings. She looked much happier in the new one, looking in on a young woman through a two-way mirror who was busily getting dressed. "Raymond, it was all worth it. Subject 9b has just woken and seems completely oblivious to the procedure. Look at her, she doesn't know a thing! I recommend moving on to phase 2."

Pausing the recording, I noticed Subject 9b looking at her hand strangely, like she'd just noticed something. Then I recognized her as 'Hamada Ayano'. Going back to the list of files, I noticed that some of them were marked with small notes. One of them caught my eye near the bottom of the list. The note simply read 'Takaga'. I played it.

"I want it to be noted that this procedure was highly irregular and I performed it under protest," Shinibata grumbled at the camera while 'Hamada Ayano' struggled in the room behind her as several large men tried to insert a plug into her datajack. "However, I have to admit that Kumiko performed beyond my expectations. Subject 34b has demonstrated that she retains her memories and skills, which puts us far ahead of schedule. Of course, she's unwilling to go along with this little stunt, Ray, I know you think you need to put on a show for the board but I want to be on record saying that this is only going to bring us more trouble in the long run. Psychotropic conditioning should begin in five... make that ten minutes, I'll see you tomorrow morning when we have a result. Oh and get off my back about Wuxing already, we need that telesma and they're the only ones that can get their hands on it."

I let the next file play. Shinibata was sitting alone again, looking tired. "Well, Ray's little performance worked. Takaga or Ayano or whoever the frag she is now is undergoing extended conditioning. I just wish she wasn't our first big success, it's not like we can show her off to the world now. Probably for the best, at least until we can take Kumiko out of the equation entirely. Kosko is proving his usefulness already, if I had my way he'd be in charge of security around here. The test subjects are certainly quieter when he's around."

Feeling sick, I logged out. Opening my eyes, I found Cook looking down at me. Kumiko still stood where she had been in the middle of the room, still staring blankly. "Well?" Cook pressed.

"Paydata," I croaked, my throat not working right for a moment as I sat up. "We have to get the frag out of here and we need to get Kumiko home."

Standing up, I felt nothing but white-hot fury for the first time in my life as I stormed towards the door, leaving Cook with a confused look on her face. Kumiko reached out for my hand as I passed by but I pulled it out of her grasp. "No," I told her firmly, "I don't want what you can give me, not that way."

She nodded, seemingly oblivious to the angry tone of my voice. "I can still help."

Walking on without answering her, I punched the button to open the door, Cook close behind. For a moment, my brain didn't even register that Kosko was standing there, grinning at us with his tusk-filled maw. It wasn't until an enormous paw backhanded me, battering the left half of my face, that the adrenaline hit. I didn't even have a chance to think 'oh drek' until after my back slammed into the wall, spots blooming in my vision.

You expect a stonking great Troll to be a slow, lumbering, thing. Kosko was anything but. He already had a Ruger Superwarhawk heavy pistol in his right hand, raising it level with Cook's head before she could even blink. I watched him pull the trigger. I saw Cook's head disintegrate, spraying blood and fragments across the room. Some of it hit Kumiko's, spattering her gown. She didn't even blink. The bullet hit the opposite wall, breaking the AR projector and making the holographic windows flicker spasmodically.

I tried to move but Kosko just swung the gun around to point at me, the huge bore of the pistol looking like the long tunnel people talk about after near death experiences. "Stay the fuck down, breather. I've got five more friends waiting to blow your little mind."

My vision was red. You hear about it in books and you see it stylized on the trid or in simsense but the experience of that blind, naked, hatred can't be completely conveyed by art. In that moment, Kosko appeared to me as a manifestation of all the ills in the world, a physical form that I could vent my anger at without petty conscience getting in the way. In Shiawase, you learn the Japanese concept of 'nakama' at an early age. Your nakama are the people you work with, those who are not family but remain as close as family, people you rely on for support and prosperity. It's a concept that goes beyond friendship, espousing loyalty at all costs. After all, what are you without your nakama? Without the people who are there to pick you up when you fall?

The spell just flowed through me, riding my rage as I glared over the barrel into the troll's blank silver eyes. I watched them widen as he doubled over, the gun falling from his trembling fingers as he grasped his crotch, experiencing a single, constant, orgasm that made him fall to his knees. My focus could have cut through steel, the entirety of my will sustaining the spell as I pulled my broken body up the wall to my feet. My ribs hurt like a motherfucker as I limped towards the gun, blood running down my chin from my nose as I felt the skin around my eye puff up, throbbing.

Picking up the gun with both hands, I pressed the barrel against Kosko's face between his nose and the tusk that extended from his lower jaw. I'm sure he didn't even know that I'd pulled the trigger, the kick nearly knocking me off my feet. I kept firing, emptying the rest of the bullets into his chest and head, missing twice. The two bullets that hit turned everything between his shoulders into a mess of blood, gore and chrome, however, so the job was done.

My wrists hurt when I dropped the gun. Moments later, I turned towards the door to find a squad of security guards aiming rifles in my general direction. "PLACE YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEAD! NOW!" The one in front ordered, his voice electronically masked by his helmet. I complied, turning to face them, moving slowly and making no sudden moves.

They were just as surprised as I was when Kumiko stepped past me, interposing herself between us without saying a word.

"Uh... little girl," one of the guards said haltingly, unsure of himself, "you need to get out of the way while we take care of the bad man, ok?"

Her reply made her intentions clear. The first guard in line shuddered in place for a moment before he was ripped in half like a wishbone by an invisible force. I screamed, the guards screamed, only Kumiko remained utterly silent. In panic, the guns went off. Barely managing to fall to one side, I saw the bullets flatten against' Kumiko's skin like they were nothing but light rain. The second guard was wrung out like a wet rag doll. The next had all his extremities pulled from his torso like a giant child experimenting with a doll. The rest tried to flee but one didn't escape, his blood boiling out through the seams of his armour as he writhed in agony. Kumiko stepped forward over the pieces, tracking blood across the floor with her feet without concern. Looking over her shoulder at me, she simply beckoned before continuing on down the hallway.

Picking myself up gingerly, I was honestly afraid not to comply. Taking one of the guard's weapons, I discovered that it was biometrically locks, so immediately discarded it before limping down the hallway. The guards weren't the only ones to suffer Kumiko's wrath, if indeed the spirit possessing her was even angry at its treatment. In every cell I passed, the prisoners lay dead, just lying on the floor like puppets with their strings cut. Unzipping the front of my coveralls, I let the Human Form spell go, reverting to my normal self. The coveralls were too small but the elastic stretched and I loosened the velcro straps on my boots to help accommodate my larger feet.

I lost sight of Kumiko a few times but finding her again was always easy, all I had to do was follow the trail of destruction. Anything that got in her way was shredded: doors, gun emplacements, guards, people, anything. The security consoles that I passed were all blinking red, with AR screens exhorting everyone to follow evacuation procedures. She led me through the hallways until we got to the octagonal room, which lay down a long passageway that led away from the rest of the facility. It was just as I'd seen it in VR, a golden cage around an open, bleeding, wound in the metaplanes. Between Kumiko and the cage stood her mother, glaring down at what used to be her daughter sternly.

"Who the fuck are you?" she snapped at me when I walked through the door, unflappable. After all, I knew I must look like a walking corpse and Kumiko looked like she'd stepped right out of a Japanese horror flick.

I looked at her, wondering if she was serious. "Who the fuck am I?" I gasped, my broken ribs making the act of talking hurt. "You ask yourself that question when you look in the mirror every fragging morning?" She glared at me, seeming somehow offended that I wasn't licking the dirt off her 900¥ shoes. Before she could say anything, I held up my hand to cut her off. "Rhetorical question, I don't give two shits how you justify what you did here. All this is ending right here, right now."

Staggering forward, I brushed past her, surmising what Kumiko wanted me to do without her having to tell me. Not trusting my fragile brain to dive into VR, I logged into the cage's generator manually and started the process of cracking the code.

"NO!" Shinibata cried out, trying to lash out at me with a spell that took the form of a glowing energy bolt. Kumiko squashed it negligently, like swatting a fly out of the air. "Get out of my way! I command you, stupid spirit!"

Kumiko cocked her head to one side, like she'd done something amusing. "I was never bound to you. You seem to be confusing co-operation with service."

Shinibata's eyes widened and I could help but smirk. "I... I... why?" she finally asked when her wits returned.

"It was interesting watching you for a while," Kuimiko admitted, "but I've learned all I can here."

I watched Shinibata's composure slowly break down, the mask peeling away like the layers of an onion until she was on her knees, weeping in front of what used to be her child. Suddenly reaching out, she grasped Kumiko by her shoulders, tears running down her cheeks as she shook her. "Just... just give me back my daughter you fucking monster! Giver her back!"

Sneering, Kumiko slapped her, knocking Shinibata several feet across the floor. "Your daughter is dead," she snarled before turning back towards me, her glare leaving me no doubt to my fate if I failed her.

"Hold your horses..." I told her, trying to concentrate through the pain. Moments later, the codes clicked and I was in. The hum of the generators died slowly as they wound down, the soft glow from the cage dying away. A wave of energy seemed to burst from the portal, crackling through the magical runes and making my hair stand on end. The ground itself shook and shuddered as the earth itself seemed to recoil.

"Come," Kumiko ordered, grabbing my wrist and half-dragging me along behind her, heedless of my injuries. I managed to hop along but the jarring gait took the last of my strength and I fell to the floor at her feet, gasping as I held onto consciousness. The shaking seemed to get worse as she knelt beside me. Metal groaned as the supporting struts of the room warped, rivets popping out of the walls to bounce across the floor.

"Quid pro quo," she whispered, mimicking me as she placed her hand on my chest.

Agony. If you've ever slotted an action chip in your life, you know a little about pain. Truth is, even in the most balls-to-the-wall ultra-real flick, they'll dull the pain of things like gunshots and stab wounds. After the pain of having my soul wrenched from my body, for the rest of my life, nothing else could compare. Magicians say that when they astrally project, it's like nothing at all. They just step out of their bodies for a while, like leaving a comfortable coat behind. I almost can't believe it anymore.

Next thing I knew, I was staring into the face of the spirit possessing Kumiko, standing in a world that glowed brightly from the energy pulsing from the portal. Its face bubbled like boiling water, heads forming and bursting like bubbles in the foam. Millions of tiny faces looked back at me, each wearing a different expression, showing a range of thoughts and emotions. Some seemed curious, others quizzical or doubtful. A few seemed angry while most were pleased or even excited. Before I knew it, the thing was all around me, engulfing me in its mass and I was lost in the plethora of sensation as my soul splintered into a thousand shards.

I didn't think it was going to end but it did. Oblivion didn't come, just sweet peace and blessed silence. It didn't last. The crash of something large and heavy into the floor made my eyes bolt open and I found myself staring into an unfamiliar, bloody, face. It took me a moment to realize that I'd seen that face in the mirror for forty two years, or at least a version that didn't have a bruise instead of a face and a broken nose.

Lurching up, I looked down to find myself wearing a bloody hospital gown. It was like the room had grown too, looking cavernous around me. My small, pale, feet and thin legs were freezing and when I saw my tiny hands with slender fingers, I gasped. I didn't need a mirror to know that I was in Kumiko's body, the high sound of my own rapid breathing more than confirmed it. Hearing another bang, I whipped my head towards the door to see Shinibata staggering backwards down the hall away from me, staring at me wide-eyed. "Mommy," I begged, reaching out for her without knowing why I'd used that word, "help me!"

She stood frozen in horror for a moment before turning on her heel and sprinting down the corridor. Another tremor shook the room and dislodged the beam over the doorway, the weight of the concrete block overhead finally overcoming the strength if its supports and falling between us. Tears leaked down my cheeks as I was forced to shut my eyes from the dirt that fell into the room behind it, leaving a cloud of particles in the air.

With a final burst of energy, the portal sealed over but the earth continued to shake like a leaf in the wind. Barely able to get to my feet, an idea came to me. I didn't know where it came from but it was the only hope I could cling to. Summoning up the mana was surprisingly easy, pulling it into a ball as I shaped it with my mind. I imagined a creature, made of rock and dirt, and sent the power into the pile before me. "Show yourself!" I commanded, spitting immediately after to get the taste of dirt out of my mouth.

To my surprise, it did, coalescing from the rock and dirt into a large, humanoid, form with glowing yellow eyes just like I'd imagined. I also knew that I could tell it to do things, though I wasn't sure exactly how many orders I could give it before it would go back home. "Take me safely to the surface," I ordered.

For a moment, I wondered if I'd miscast the summons when it engulfed me but then I found myself in a bubble of air inside its body as it travelled up through hole in the roof. Dirt and rock parted before us like water as we fled, I estimated that we were travelling at least a hundred kph though it was hard to tell without a point of reference. I felt a few changes in direction as the earth elemental dodged a few man-made structures before parting tall grass away and depositing me in the middle of what looked like a park that hadn't been remotely cared for since the Awakening. Hearing the rumble of thunder, however, I knew that the mana storm had to be uncomfortably close, the sound sending chills down my spine.

The elemental simply stood there as I picked myself up and dusted off. The grass was nearly as tall as I was and it was night-time, the only light around being the glow from my elemental's eyes. It was also freezing. Remembering the schematics of the underground railway, I reckoned I had to be at least near Richmond, which meant the Blue Mountains and the mana storm itself was only a stone's throw away due west.

"Can you make me warm?" I asked the elemental. It nodded, grimly silent. "Keep me warm, then, and carry me safely to the nearest road."

Nodding again, I felt the flush of warmth roll over me before it gently picked me up in its arms. I held on as it stomped through the grass, pushing away all thoughts and fears for later as we moved on.

#

>>>>>[Congratz, kiddies, you've just lived through 4.8 on the Richter scale, 0.8 shy of the Newcastle Earthquake of '89. Now's the time to beg help and curry favours as Sydneysiders scrabble to pick up the pieces, or break the nearest shop window and loot whatever you want, heh-heh!]<<<<<
- Surfer

>>>>>[FRAG YOU, DREKFACE! Anyone out there with a shred of conscience, the Penrith Barrens need your help! The ghouls are going fragging wild and the walls are down! We've got women and children here in the old shopping centre; ammo, supplies and anyone who knows how to shoot, help us!]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>>[KE's out in force south of the river and I think I saw SWAT hightailing it towards Lucas Heights. God, please let the reactor be ok...]<<<<<
- Foxhole

>>>>>[Relax, Lucas Heights was decommissioned decades ago. Shiawase pumps in all our power in from the undersea reactor, don't worry your little head.]<<<<<
- Stainless Rat

>>>>>[Check your history, Rat. HIFAR was shut down in 2007 but ANSTO replaced it with the OPAL reactor. ANSTO was bought out by Shiawase in the 30's or 40's, so now we have no fragging idea what they're doing with it.]<<<<<
- Original

>>>>>[Whatever they're doing has to be better than what the toxics have planned for it. Fraggers have been eyeballing the facility for decades.]<<<<<
- Magelight

>>>>>[Every Shiawase wagemage in town is being airlifted over there now and KE's rushing the council into session asking for the Storm Warden militia to be placed under their command. If you're willing to take a risk, it might be worth seeing your friendly neighbourhood corp contacts for a little mercenary work.]<<<<<
- iMakeSushi

>>>>>[Screw takin' on fraggin' toxics! I've got nuyen to make.]<<<<<
- Surfer

>>>>>[Hope that blood money spends well.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Fuck you, old man.]<<<<<
- Surfer

>>>>>[Any of Surfer's chummers who would like to help him out, you can find him and his truck slowly sinking in Port Jackson. I'm not sure if he's actually going to abandon all the stolen gear in the back before it drags him down with it.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Christ, Ned.]<<<<<
- Two Wands Blazing

>>>>>[Good news from the 'burbs, the wageslaves in the skyscrapers and apartments got a little shook up but none of them have suffered serious structural damage. Should have suspected the Japanacorps would know how to build 'quake-proof towers, neh?]<<<<<
- Praetor

>>>>>[If anyone is actually interested in private security and/or personal protection jobs, it's a seller's market. Slide your resume on over, plenty to go around.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>>[Anyone with a discreet yet heavily armed air vehicle, I need a pickup from Lilyfield to Hornsby. Send prices and estimated ETAs, will give details on acceptance of contract.]<<<<<
- Suspiciously Delicious

>>>>>[All runners anywhere near the Paramatta/Harris Park area, we've got insect spirits popping up all over the fraggin' place all the way down to Cabramatta! They're tearing the strip apart, we need backup! NOW!]<<<<<
- Thornbird

>>>>>[iMakeSushi, Shiawase stock just took a 1% dip on the Melbourne exchange. What the fuck is happening over there?]<<<<<
- The Accountant

>>>>>[Sushi?]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>>[Drek, he just went offline.]<<<<<
- Quarry Query

>>>>>[Proteus just raised all the bridges to the Arcoblocks. How humanitarian.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Hey! I resemble that remark!]<<<<<
- GurlGhul2Cul4Skul

>>>>>[.... Nevermind, I'm getting too old for this drek.]<<<<<
- Ned

#

Dr. Shinibata Hitomi stumbled as she stepped out of the surface entrance and onto the tarmac, the broken heel of her right shoe folding up under her foot. The extraction team ran to meet her, two operatives covering her back with silenced rifles from Shiawase Armaments. A third lent her a hand for support to help her walk. "Dr. Shinibata," he greeted, yelling over the noise of the Hughes Aerospace Airstar helicopter idling on the landing pad. "We're here to take you to safety."

Nodding impatiently, she wished she could tell him to stick his head in a propeller but as much as it galled her she needed his hand to help her walk. Halfway there, she heard a strange 'thwip' sound that buzzed past, audible even over the roar of the chopper. Looking around, she was caught off guard when the guard helping her walk toppled, leaving her struggling to keep her balance. He flopped bonelessly to the ground without a word.

They literally appeared out of nowhere, popping into existence as their invisibility spell was dropped. Short, matt black, swords did quick, efficient, work as the black clad soldiers precisely slashed windpipes and arteries. Shinibata screamed when she saw them, falling as she scrambled to get away but they had her hemmed in on all sides. When she looked back at the helicopter, she saw two neat bulletholes in the windscreen, the pilots slumped in their seats.

Two more men ran towards her from the sidelines, carrying a long bag between them. Dropping it in front of her, they unzipped the bag and dumped a body in front of her. The face on the body was hers, an entry wound placed neatly on the temple. Grabbing her, the men locked her hands in mage cuffs then stuffed her into the bag before toting her away, struggling in the dark. As the rest of the nameless soldiers faded into the wilderness, the Airstar exploded in a ball of fire.


The statement in my signature is false.
Re: No Time for Second Chances [message #63762 is a reply to message #62484] Mon, 20 August 2012 15:41 Go to previous messageGo to next message
Dr. Bender is currently offline  Dr. Bender
Messages: 1232
Registered: January 2005
Location: 47°9′S 126°43...
Chapter 6

Richmond was nothing but a burned out shell. In 2011, it had been a small town on the outskirts of Sydney, not really part of the city but close enough to be considered so by many. The highway would be choc full of commuters every morning and night as the workers moved to and from the city. Now, the roads were choked with the debris and burned-out wrecks of a bygone era. Store windows were smashed, buildings gutted by decades of looting, scavenging, fire and exposure to the elements.

Buildings rushed by as we sped along at over a hundred, the elemental's form flowing smoothly over everything in its path. I tried not to think about falling as the wind whipped through my hair, in fact I tried not to think about anything at all. I just wanted to leave that hellish place far behind me, even if I had to endure the elemental's hard, grimy, touch. Worst part was the bugs; there are reasons cars have windscreens.

I caught the occasional flicker of movement in the buildings, always out of the corner of my eye. Relief washed over me as we left Richmond behind, I really didn't want to know who or what was crazy enough to live near the mana storm. The township gave way to a long road that ran parallel between the railroad tracks and what looked like an old airfield. Past the airfield, the road suddenly dipped and the elemental ground to a halt. After a moment, I saw why; the road plunged right down into dark water. Near opposite bank, I could see rooftops sticking out from the surface.

It hit me the moment I reached for my commlink, thinking that I could use my satellite uplink to connect to a GPS system and get a map of the area. In my haste, I'd left my commlink behind, along with the ring, probably buried under tons of concrete and steel. Even if my earth elemental could return and retrieve them, them was no way I was going anywhere near Richmond again, not to mention closer to the mana storm.

There was no point in turning north, with Richmond being in the northwest so close to the storm we'd either run into the Hawkesbury River or the northern edge of the mana storm, whichever came first. Travelling south, I had my doubts when the lake gave way to a river that twisted and turned on itself several times. It got worse when the grasslands gave way to bushland, the canopy overhead robbing me of landmarks to help me get my bearings. I thanked whatever spirits were listening when we found an ancient bridge that was dilapidated but still standing, allowing us to cross.

Not that it really helped. The road beyond the bridge was badly overgrown and most of the signs were either torn down or riddled with bullet holes, leaving little trace of where it might be going. I was completely turned around, for all I knew I could be headed right back to Richmond. Finally, we came across a road sign partially embedded in a tree, the poles attaching it to the ground bent as if from some sort of impact. It read 'Penrith' with an arrow pointing right down a branch off the main road.

I hesitated. Penrith was the last stop in Sydney before you hit the Blue Mountains, basically right on the edge of the mana storm. On the other hand, it was also on the highway that had once allowed travellers to cross the mountains to access the mainland or for mainlanders to drive right into the heart of the city. Of course, the wall now blocked the way into Sydney itself just outside Paramatta but at least I knew the highway wouldn't have been reclaimed by the bush and I wasn't going to be able to count on the earth elemental to protect me forever. The moment the sun rose over the horizon, the spirit would return home; when that happened I was determined not to be stranded in the middle of the wilderness.

I heard the thunder of the mana storm getting closer as we made our way down the road and I continued to pray, this time that we were getting closer to the storm rather than it getting closer to us. When we finally emerged from the trees, I received a shock. Past a series of lakes, the Blue Mountains loomed over us, all too close. Energy crackled inside the clouds overhead, making the water look like blood in the red light. At least, I hoped it was water. Turning left, presuming that the road was headed south, I clutched my arms around the elemental's neck and fought the urge to bury my head in its shoulder and weep in terror.

We came to a commercial area, passed several ancient car lots and the remains of what used to be 'superstores' that once sold pre-awakening electronics. I looked curiously at what remained of a huge signpost that held up the shattered remains of a set of yellow arches and wondered what sort of business it had advertised until the distant sound of gunfire caught my full attention.

The Museum of Fire was on fire, it was impossible to miss the irony. Licks of flame boiled out of the high windows of the enormous, barn-like, structure made mostly of corrugated steel. Curiously, there was a Roadmaster truck parked in the lot out front, crudely armoured with the simple method of welding bits of chassis stripped from other vehicles to the frame with nests of sharpened spikes sticking out of it like a giant echidna.

Ordering the elemental to slow down, I hopped out of its arms and crept forward as quietly as I could on the gravel road. Between sporadic bursts of gunfire, I could hear rough voices cursing from inside the burning building. I flinched when someone put a burst of fire through a high window, allowing smoke to pour out. On a hunch, I turned to the elemental and pointed at the wall right underneath the window. "Rip open that wall!" I commanded.

Thick stone fingers peeled the wall apart like the key on a tin of soyfish. Smoke billowed out around the elemental, obscuring it for a moment before it stepped back out of the way, panic fire bouncing harmlessly off its shoulder. Feral screams and blood-curdling battle cries issued from the smoke moments before a group of orks in tactical gear came charging out into the open, firing makeshift SMGs blindly over their shoulders. The first in line didn't even pause, I wasn't sure if he noticed me at all as he ran past. When I looked back, the second was baring down on me, yelling incoherently.

I gave off a piercing, high-pitched, scream when he scooped me up and slung me over his shoulder as he continued to run for dear life, his armoured shoulderplates digging painfully into my stomach. As such, I had a great view of the horde of feral ghouls that bounded after us. Some ran on two legs, many scuttled on all fours, all of them were whipped into a slavering frenzy, bloodlust clear in their mad red-rimmed eyes. The last ork out of the building was a little too slow, the mob of flesh-eaters dragged him down and swarmed over him like a pack of sharks.

"ELEMENTAL," I screeched, clutching my hands over my ears so I couldn't hear the screaming, "KILL THE GHOULS! KILL THE GHOULS!"

I didn't have to tell it twice. For a moment, I wondered if I'd used up my last service for the day as it disappeared underground but then the earth surged upward in a wave. Ghouls screamed as they were pulled up into the dirt before it crashed down on the crowd, engulfing bodies in a churning vortex of dirt and stone.

The orks didn't even look back, thick legs pumping as they climbed the slope and picked their way over the old railroad tracks before sliding down the other side. The last I saw of my elemental, more ghouls were swarming over it, ripping chunks of stone away in their frenzy with claws and teeth. When the chill of the night air hit me, I knew it was gone.

"Drek! Drek! Drek! Drek! Drek!" the ork directly behind us swore.

"Shut up and run, Wilkes!" the one carrying me ordered.

"I'm almost dry, sergeant," the one ahead called back.

"We're ALL almost dry, drekhead! Keep it together! Eyes front!"

We ran past some buildings and into a long car lot sandwiched between the main road that fed into an enormous parking garage on the right and the railroad tracks on the left. Someone had piled wrecked cars over the entrance to the parking garage and I saw piles of charred corpses still smoking nearby, like someone had poured burning oil down from the upper levels. As we approached, someone threw a rope ladder down for us.

"Dexter!" the sergeant shouted as the first one grabbed for the ladder, "cover us!"

"Frag you!" Dexter growled back, scrambling up the ladder as fast as he could.

Snarling, Sergeant skidded to a halt and handed me to Wilkes before turning to cover our backs. "Take her with you, get moving!"

Wilkes and I looked at each other as he held me in the air under my shoulders. "Why the frag did you pick up this smoothie slot?" he asked. Glaring at him, I tried kicking him in the leg but his armour was too thick.

"NO-ONE GETS LEFT BEHIND! NOW MOVE IT!"

The fourth ork in line ran past us and scrambled up the latter, prompting Wilkes to sling me over his shoulder and start hauling ass up behind him. When I looked back, I saw the ghouls bound over the railway tracks just before Sergeant opened fire in short bursts. More gunfire came from the levels above us as the locals joined in but bullets barely slowed the column that surged toward us like ants. Someone threw a Molotov cocktail over our heads that shattered halfway across the road, creating a wall of fire that might slow them down.

Seeing my chance, I focused on the patch of fire on the road, drawing on the mana around me and pushing it into the flames. The fire exploded, rising higher as a white-hot feminine figure rose from the heart of the flame. This time, I winced as the power crackled painfully across my skin. "KILL THE GHOULS!" I yelled again, fighting through the pain.

This time the ghouls knew fear, the forerunners skidding to a halt before trying to run back the way they came. Fire and heat spoke to the lizard brains of the poor infected souls, routing the entire swarm. It was no use, the elemental cut through them like a blowtorch, chasing them down until they all disappeared back over the railway tracks.

Wilkes dropped me on the first floor of the parking garage and I collapsed onto my hands and knees, coughing and hacking as spots of blood dripped from my mouth. The local orks aiming a motley assortment of guns over the concrete barrier were just kids. They looked like teenagers in ork years, which meant they were probably around Kumiko's age or a few years younger. Still, they obviously knew how to handle their guns, a fact of life out in the barrens.

Dexter lifted my chin to take a look at me. "Fuck," he swore, "underneath all that dirt this little slitch might be a looker. Probably get a few hundred for her."

He might have been scarier if I wasn't so damn tired. As it was, I just stared at him as he grinned down at me.

"Get your filthy fraggin' paws off her before I break it off and shove it where the sun don't shine," Sergeant growled as he hoisted his leg over the barricade, "and I'm not talking about your hand."

"Come on, sarge!" Dexter protested, grinning right up to the moment Sergeant punched him in the jaw with enough force to send him sprawling.

"Resupply and go find Morok," Sergeant snapped at Wilkes before pointing at Dexter, "and take that piece of drek with you."

The squad snapped to it, two of them dragging Dexter away while Wilkes took the lead. Sergeant knelt beside me and took a drag on his canteen before offering it to me. I had to take it in both hands to hold the weight, sniffing it before taking a drink. "I don't know where you came from, kid," he sighed, "but you saved our asses, that's for damn sure. Think you've got another summon in you?"

Considering for a moment, I nodded. He grinned happily, which was as frightening as Dexter's leer. "Good girl! You're with me." Slinging me over his shoulder again, he quickly checked his gun as he scanned the boys and girls staring at us. "Who threw that fire bomb?" he asked. One of the girls put her hand up. "Good one; good arm too. If we live through this, come see me."

I watched the others slap her on the shoulder in congratulations before they all returned to their posts. The girl was grinning like she'd just won an award.

Once we were inside the mall, I heard the sound of gunfire again. It was starting to become familiar. Layers of barricades made out of whatever had come to hand had been thrown down on both the lower floor and the upper balconies while armoured orks held off the ghouls that were trying to creep in from all sides, scuttling from storefront to storefront. Fields of broken glass and crude caltrops were intermixed with burning patches where more Molotov cocktails had been thrown to keep the infected at bay.

Sergeant put two in the chest of a ghoul that managed to get a few feet away from the nearest barricade while the ork behind it was reloading before hopping down the stairs to the lower floor two at a time. The defenders had piled crates of guns and ammo in the middle of the room, Sergeant didn't even bother reloading, he just picked up a new rifle and started shoving clips in his pockets.

"Sergeant!" an ork called for attention as he stormed over, one of his compatriots watching his back. "What the frag is that thing?" he asked accusatorially, pointing his finger at me.

I glared at him, not appreciating being called a thing.

"She's a mage, Morork," Sergeant explained, "and she can summon. Just point her in the right direction."

He looked me over quizzically. I must have looked a total mess, though at least the dirt was probably covering the bloodstains. "All right," he relented, taking Sergeant's word for it as he pointed down the way he'd come from. "Think you can take the pressure off? Be my guest."

Nodding, I patted Sergeant on the shoulder so that he'd let me down. Setting my feet firmly on the cold floor, I drew the mana into myself again, feeling the buzz creep painfully across my skin. Concentrating on another patch of fire, I called the spirit into being. This time it didn't hurt as much and watching Morork and the others flinch as the figure burst from the fire to tear ghouls apart and set them on fire, leaving burning body parts in its wake.

Morork snarled savagely, obviously pleased. "Right you dogs! Odd numbers up the stairs! We're pushing east! Take as much ammo as you can carry! Sergeant, the kid's with you."

Sighing in resignation as I was slung over Sergeant's shoulder again, I rested my chin on one hand as I watched my fire elemental scatter the ghouls, driving them back through the western entrance. Everyone grabbed more ammo but the ones who took the rear grabbed whole boxes to carry with them. When we reached an overpass that connected one part of the mall with another, allowing customers to walk over a road, I saw a Citymaster security vehicle similar to the Roadmaster outside the Museum of Fire drive past with ghouls clinging to the roof and sides. The front turret was firing down the road on full auto, cutting down the ghouls teeming in the streets before it like wheat to a thresher.

Everyone jumped when a ghoul leapt out of a storefront onto one of the men taking point, screaming bloody murder before sinking its teeth into his arm. The rest didn't hesitate, hosing them both down with lead. Morork even gave the ork a coup de graces with his Colt Manhunter as he passed by, just in case. It seemed extreme but even I knew how fast the ghoul strain of HMHVV could onset, it was more a mercy than anything else. The idea of turning feral, attacking and eating my friends made me shudder.

More orks were holding a line near what had once been a food court, the ghouls surging right up to the barricade through the eastern entrance. I looked away when one woman was plucked over the wall and torn apart just before we opened fire. Putting me down, Sergeant took another Molotov from a crate one of the men behind us was carrying, whipped a lighter out of his pocket and lit the cloth. "Ready, kid?"

Nodding, I took a deep breath and tried to ignore the new wave of weariness that hit me as he threw the cocktail. Summoning again brought me to my knees, my head spinning. I vaguely heard Sergeant tell me I'd done enough as he picked me up again. He didn't have to say it, my vision was so blurry that I would have passed out before I'd even tried. The gunfire seemed to fade into the distance, like someone had stuffed cotton wool into my ears, but I resisted going peacefully to sleep, afraid that I wouldn't ever open my eyes again.

When my vision returned and I could hear properly again, I found myself sitting against a wall wrapped in an emergency blanket with a blonde ork woman who out-massed most of the men I'd seen hovering over me. She was wearing a tactical vest and urban camo fatigues that had plenty of pockets for extra clips, most of them empty. Unusually, she had her hair tied back with a blue and black bandanna, which was soaked with sweat. Glancing at me between bursts of auto-fire, she smiled in a motherly way, which was still frightening thanks to the tusks. "You ok, honey?"

I nodded hesitantly. "Sergeant?" I croaked, my mouth dry.

She smirked. "Don't worry, he'll be back. Call me Vallerie."

Before I could say anything, I was interrupted by the loudest noise I'd ever heard, loud enough that it drowned out the woman's gun. There was a flicker as a shadow shot past the skylight above, bringing with it a noise like a jet engine. That racket was then punctuated by the staccato base of a rotary assault cannon that sent bits of asphalt from the road outside thirty feet into the air. The orks cheered while I covered my ears, wondering if my brain was about to leak out.

When the noise died down, everything seemed a little too quiet, except for the orks who continued to cheer and holler victoriously; even giving each other spontaneous hugs. After slapping a young, pale-faced, woman on the shoulder, Vallerie put down her gun and knelt beside me. Licking her finger, she tried to wipe away some of the grime on my face but she smirked when she realized it was a futile effort. "Damn, is there really a little girl under all that? What's your name, darlin'?"

Catching myself before I replied 'Nathan', I considered my answer for a moment. "N-Naomi," I finally stammered out, using the Japanese pronunciation.

"Pretty name," she complimented in the way adults do when they're trying to get children on side. "You know where your parents are, Naomi?"

Looking her in the eye, she seemed sincere but caution prevailed. "I don't know if I should trust you," I whispered in a small voice.

She smirked. "Good answer. Come on, let's get you cleaned up; just watch out for blood splatter, ok?"

Nodding, I kept the blanket around me as I let her lead me back into the old eatery. We drew the attention of a small crowd of ork kids as we passed by who peeked over the makeshift barricades made out of tables and chairs. They were obviously a last ditch effort, the ghouls I'd seen would have torn through them in seconds. The younger ones that could walk clung to the older kids while the older girls had their arms full with babies.

"Hey, Vallerie," an older boy with a light pistol called out, affecting a mucho swagger, "where'd you get the fraggin' smoothie slot?"

"Angelo!" Vallerie snapped. "What did I say about that fraggin' mouth? Shut your fucking trog pie-hole and keep your eyes out, capiche?"

Angelo looked thoroughly scolded, though Vallerie's profanity made the rest of the kids give off a weak twitter of laugher at his expense. After the tension, I guess everyone needed whatever relief they could find. Vallerie scanned the kids and selected another older girl who also had a pistol. "Beth, see if you can find some clothes for her." Nodding eagerly, Beth ran off.

She took me into the women's bathroom where a couple of other ork women were already using the communal showers, their gear piled along the bench opposite. They did, however, each keep a pistol hanging on a hook next to the showerhead where it'd stay dry. I blushed at one of the women's nakedness when she turned around and gave me a thumbs up. "Owe you one, kid," she said with a wink, "woulda been ghoul chow if you hadn't shown up with your pets."

Vallerie grinned at me as she set me up on a sink, grabbed a towel and soaked it under the tap. "See, kiddo? You're a local hero."

I squeaked meekly, purely by reflex. "Y-you shouldn't waste water," I said, trying to change the subject.

She chuckled. "I know, sweetie, but don't worry. Water and ghouls are about the only things we have more than enough of here." As if to make her point, the lights overhead flickered.

Being unable to stop her, I let Vallerie wipe the layers of dirt off my exposed skin, starting with my face and working her way down to my feet. The cold cloth made me wince but I endured, figuring being clean was better. Once the worst of it was gone, she made me get out of my clothes and take a real shower, determined to get the twigs, leaves and mud out of my hair. I hadn't realized that I was that filthy. I kept my eyes closed as I washed and tried not to think about all the women staring at me or the feeling of my own, alien, flesh. It occurred to me that I was falling into twelve year old patterns of behaviour far too easily but it all happened so fast I had no time to control myself.

Beth walked in with a small pile of clothes about my size. I blushed when she appraised me, looking away while I dried myself. "You don't look so tough," she commented, "you're too... skinny."

She looked about my age, which meant she was four to six years younger. Orks grow really fast but only live into their 40's. In a year or two, she'd probably be ready for her first litter, if not earlier. Even so, her arms were about three times as thick as mine with muscle. I just shrugged and nodded, no knowing what to say.

"You don't need to be tough when you can sling mojo, Beth," Vallerie explained, "Naomi here bagged over two dozen kills according to Sergeant."

Beth looked impressed. It wasn't hard to keep a smile off my face, I dreaded having to look in the mirror and see the reality of my own reflection. I now knew why so many of the test subjects had gone mad, everything felt so wrong. I'd go to do something and it wouldn't feel right in a million different ways, it was like thinking you'd forgotten something as you left your house only you couldn't remember what and wondered if you were just being paranoid.

Vallerie brushed out my hair before selecting some clothes. Looking at Beth, she held up a bunch of bras with one eyebrow raised. "I didn't know what size!" Beth protested, embarrassed.

Looking down, I blinked. She was right, I had breasts; small ones but large enough to be called out as such. Vallerie slipped a training bra and a stretchy black singlet over my head while I stared, trying to cope with what I was seeing. Black cotton panties and socks came next, followed by a light grey set of overalls and a warm orange hoodie with a black dragon design down one side. The shoes they provided were surprisingly modern sports sneakers with velcro straps and a slightly raised heel. I have to admit, being in clean clothes again felt surprisingly good. Thanking Vallerie and Beth earned me some smiles.

Rather than leading me around by the hand, Vallerie let me follow her out of the bathroom with Beth close behind me, where we immediately ran into Sergeant waiting patiently beside the door. "Boss wants to talk," he grumbled enigmatically. "She say anything yet?"

"Her name's Naomi," Vallerie answered, taking my hand possessively. Sergeant noticed her attitude. "Don't get too attached," he sighed, "come on, you better leave her with the other kids."

Vallerie told me not to worry as she left me with the rest of the ork girls and ordered Beth to keep an eye on me before leaving with Sergeant. They talked in hushed whispers before disappearing around the corner so I didn't know what they were about but I knew the whole 'adults not talking about problems in front of the kids' routine. Even after thirty-something years, it can still piss you off.

So I found myself as the only elf, let alone 'smooth skinned' metahuman, standing in the middle of a bunch of ork kids. First thing I noted was the weird social dynamics of the group. The girls and older guys, and by old I mean they were around thirteen in human years, mixed easily but there was obviously some tension with the boys that looked around eleven, who stood off in their own clique. It may seem strange for sexual politics to come into play so young but ork's rapid maturation brought along a set of problems that humans don't have to deal with.

Growing up in the 30's, I remembered the growing pains of the education system as they tried to deal with ork and troll kids. The idea of segregation, thought buried way back in the last century, reared its head again as primary school teachers struggled to deal with issues they hadn't been trained to cope with. Like what to do when a misbehaving six year old troll child beats you to a pulp when you stop him from inappropriately touching another kid. Not that I'm implying all troll and ork kids are molesters, far from it, just that some kids are real bastards and going through puberty while the human, elf and dwarf kids around you are all still half as mature has got to be a real bitch. Which was how the education system fractured, some schools only open to certain metatypes in an effort to 'realign the educational paradigm'. Every kookie theorist and con artist with half a degree crawling out of the woodwork didn't help matters either.

Of course, I'd grown up in a Shiawase enclave stuck in a Shiawase corporate education centre. Note, I don't call it a school. School implies a certain relative freedom of choice. Corporate education centres didn't have problems coping with ork and troll children because their programs are all tailored to each child. Sounds wonderful, I hear you say. The catch is they make all the decisions, from when, what and who you eat with every lunch to deciding your curriculum based on constant aptitude tests and psych profiles. That's how I became a financial analyst; I'd shown an affinity for maths and puzzle solving as a kid. Ironically, it occurred to me that if I'd awakened at the usual age, I might have been in Shinibata's shoes. It was a sobering thought.

Reminds me of a joke: what's long and hard on a shadowrunner? Third Grade.

A tug on my overall brought me out of my reverie. Looking down, I discovered tiny ork girl yanking on my pocket for attention. She looked like she wanted to say something but didn't quite know how to go about it, so in typical kid fashion she just blurted out what was on her mind. "Are you a faerie?" she asked innocently. A few of the other kids chuckled, which made her blush in embarrassment.

I smiled. "No, I'm not a faerie. But let me, guess, you must be a princess." She giggled back at me with abandon.

One of the older boys, crossing his arms in an attempt to look mature, snorted in disgust. "There's no such thing as an ork princess."

"Why not?" I asked, turning everyone's attention to him.

"Yeah, I'd love to hear this one, Narc," Beth agreed, giving him a glare.

Narc stammered for a moment, not quite sure how to handle the sudden scrutiny. "I... well, I mean... it's like... you know... frag it, there aren't any ork princesses! A'right?"

"Doesn't mean there shouldn't be," I said with a shrug.

I'd pushed him a little too far. He glared at me, flexing his fingers. "I don't need some stinkin' dandelion eater..."

Beth stopped him in his tracks by stepping between us and giving him a shove. "Oh, an ork girl's not good enough to be a princess? You gone smoothie on the inside?"

Narc growled, reaching for her. "You take that back!"

Angelo chose that moment to grab Narc from behind, pulling him back. "Stow it, Narc, take a breather."

The little girl took that moment to stalk over to him, her jaw set (which is quite impressive on an ork thanks to the tusks). Hefting her home-stiched rag doll (also with ork tusks) she whapped him on the knee with it before stalking away in a huff.

Narc threw up his arms in surrender, shrugging off Angelo. "Girls," he spat, swaggering off in the other direction.

After a short chuckle, everyone went silent again. For a moment I thought I'd made some sort of unforgivable breach of etiquette until I noticed they were looking at something behind me. I turned to find a smiling ork man approaching us, still wearing his dirty combat fatigues, along with a yellow and orange bandanna tied around his forearm. A heavy pistol was holstered at his hip. "Hey, kids," he said jovially, "Morork's asked me to pick up the elf girl here. He wants to see her."

I read him like an open book. Tusks don't cover a fake smile. "Then he'll have told you my name," I replied, not moving an inch.

His smile faded. Picking up the bad vibes he was putting out; the other kids started getting nervous, those that were armed reaching for their guns. "Woah, hey now kids," he said sternly, holding up his hands, "I was just told to pick up the girl, ok?"

Angelo stepped up to him and glared, even though the other ork was a couple of feet taller. "Then run back to Morork and ask him to tell you her name," he suggested, pulling the hammer back on his gun to make the point.

The ork's smile turned into a dangerous smirk in a heartbeat. There was no time to warn Angelo as the newcomer grabbed his gun arm and twisted it behind his back, adult strength and reflexes quickly overpowering the boy. Angelo gasped in pain as gun bounced across the floor. "Stupid drekking kids, just hand over the fraggin' dandelion eater," the newcomer snarled, drawing his pistol.

The anger that I'd felt killing Kosko came back with a vengeance. Locking my eyes on his, narrowed to hate-filled slits, I felt the mana flow through me once again as I shaped the spell, whispers of the Seductress filling my ears as she encouraged me to use my power. Striding forward, I unleashed the spell, willing him to know terror in its purest form.

His sneer was wiped off his face, eyes widening a moment before he screamed like I was a Great Dragon baring down on him with crushing inevitability. The gun fell from his trembling hands as he scuttled backwards, tripping over his own feet in his haste to escape. I didn't have to chase him far as he scrambled away on all fours, wailing like a baby as he fled.

When I turned back to the kids, Angelo shrank back from me reflexively. "Uh, oh drek, you do know magic."

Reaching down, I picked up the heavy pistol and checked that the safety was on. The thing was way too heavy for me, so I flipped it over and offered the handle to Angelo. "If you're gonna face down grown-ups, you'll need a bigger gun," I told him, smiling.

Taking it, he checked it himself, stuffing it in his wasteband and grabbing his own gun. "Yeah, thanks," he muttered, his pride hurt. Most of the other kids shook their heads or rolled their eyes in disgust.

Beth chided him with a cuff on the shoulder. "We have to hide her."

He winced. "Come on, Beth, cut me a break here!"

"You know those meatheads 'ain't gonna leave this alone," she argued, "he'll be back, with a crew."

Angelo groaned. "Damn it; shoulda just let 'im take her."

"Angelo!" Beth shouted, cuffing him over the head this time. "She just saved your warty arse!"

"He's right," one of the other girls argued. "I'm sorry but we've got no reason to stick our necks out for some smoothie slot. No offense."

Before I could do or say anything, one of the other girls leapt to my defence. Then the wannabe boyfriends got involved and it all devolved into a full blown argument. I would have stayed just to observe the group's social dynamics but it was best for both me and them if I wasn't around when the gangers came back. They were all too busy arguing to notice me sneak away.

Ducking into the one of the storefronts, I used Human Form to take the appearance of an ork girl before continuing on, walking down the hallway in the same direction as Sarge and Vallerie. I didn't make eye contact with anyone and moved like I knew where I was going and whoever was there needed me urgently. Despite attracting some odd looks, nobody stopped me until I found Morork's headquarters, which wasn't that hard since all I had to do was follow the trail of wireless signal repeaters that patched the militia into their network.

The Wireless Matrix was still brand new and electronic warfare protocols were trying to evolve rapidly to the change. A single broadcast point with a large footprint was the cheap solution but came with the drawback of being a single point of failure, not to mention that a commlink would need to generate an equally powerful signal to communicate back to the nexus. Current thought was that repeaters spread throughout an area provided more reliable coverage while enabling the designer to concentrate IC in the nexus itself. All of which just made me miss my commlink even more.

When I found the armed guards flanking the entrance of a department store, I knew I'd found it. Unfortunately, the guards were challenging everyone who wanted in, subjecting them to a search and confiscating weapons. Composing my story in my head, I slowly moved faster until I broke into a dead run. Moving myself to tears wasn't hard, all I had to do was remember Cook's face right before Kosko pulled the trigger.

"WOAH, slow down little girl," one of the guards said, grabbing me before I could sprint through the doors. "What's wrong?"

I took a moment to make out like I was trying to talk through the sniffles. "I-I need to tell Vallerie... someone's kidnapped the elf girl..."

"Ok, it's gonna be ok kid, take a deep breath," he said soothingly while the other guard mumbled through his commlink. After a few moments, he listened to something someone was saying through his earpiece. "It's all right, you can go on through. Just tell Morork exactly what happened, ok?"

Nodding, I rubbed my eyes a bit as I stepped across the threshold, feeling some sort of strange electric buzz across my skin as I passed. Ignoring the weird sensation, I walked around a few plasticrete walls that had been erected to block clear line of sight into the HQ itself towards the sound of shouting. I found myself in a room that was a strange mix of post-apocalyptic feudalism and a military command bunker. The structure had been reinforced with both modern materials and scavenged parts. The matrix nexus sat in the middle of the room, complete with a trideo display of Penrith and the surrounding countryside, including what looked to be a pipeline leading to something that had been built underneath the mall.

Morork sat on what could only be described as a throne; a throne of welded metal and leather upholstery but a throne none the less. Vallerie was staring down Dexter, who'd changed out of fatigues and into orange armoured biker leathers with gold trim. Behind him was a reedy ork with greasy hair and scaly skin wearing a white suit like he was ready for a dinner party. Sarge looked angry but stood to one side, his arms folded across his chest, looking like he was calculating his chances of getting away with murder before he did anything rash. There were also others watching from the sidelines. I recognized Stumpy immediately, looking intimidating wearing milspec armour. The handsome sandy-haired guy sitting next to him was wearing armoured street gear, though a gash in his right arm revealed the glint of chrome under the skin. A third human male wearing a clean suit fidgeted impatiently behind Morork, looking annoyed that he was being forced to wait for the drama to blow over.

"You, kid, over here," Morork commanded. "Tell us exactly what happened."

It didn't take much to try to act scared as I scuttled over, placing myself next to Sarge. "Well, um, sir... this guy wearing an orange bandanna tried to grab Naomi. Angelo got in his way but was overpowered, so the elf girl drove him off with a spell."

"Drove him off," the scaly-skinned ork repeated, "what do you mean, drove him off? I thought she was kidnapped?"

Wiping my eyes, I dropped the Human Form spell. "Well, really I snuck off before he could come back with friends but technically I kidnapped myself. Everything else is entirely true, though."

Dexter's jaw dropped and I caught scaly-skin taking the effort to quash his anger. Vallerie, however, just got angrier, thankfully not at me. "Wearing ORANGE, you say? Congratz, Dexter, you and your lads have just managed to piss off all the female clans."

"You want to start something?" Dexter queried threateningly. "Bring it on, joygirl."

"BOTH OF YOU SHUT UP!" Morork bellowed. "If the Lidless Eyes and the Desolation Angels have a beef, they can take it outside Penrith. And you can all stay there as far as I'm concerned. Anyone not helping rebuild can frag off as far as I'm concerned. And you can take the smoothie slot with you." After a moment's pause as he calmed down, he reconsidered what he just said, glancing at the human in the clean suit behind him. "Apologies, Doc. What I mean to say is, I've got no time for anyone or anything that's draining the community's resources and isn't giving back. If you're going to make more trouble than you solve, you can take a walk. That goes for everyone, including the smart-ass girl and you too, Zilch."

The scaly ork scowled. "The people I represent..."

"Don't give two frags and a cola for your ass," Morork interrupted. "That's what I love about guys like you. I could have Sarge cap your ass and someone just like you would be knocking on my door tomorrow morning asking to take your place. You'd do well to remember that next time you try to pull a fast one."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Zilch denied, "but even if I did, the facts remain. I have contacts that will pay handsomely for the girl. She'll get a nice SIN with nice foster parents and be set for life as a corporate mage. Hell, the moment I put the word out there'll be a bidding war. All I'm asking for is a ten percent finder's fee. A couple hundred K could put the community in the red for a long time to come."

There were guys like Zilch in every corporate boardroom I'd ever seen. Guys who thought they were smart, who thought everyone around them were fools who couldn't read them like open books, guys who were too clever for their own good. In corporations, those guys got stuck in middle management where they could do the boss's dirty work and take all the blame when schemes fail. They usually last until their antics annoy the people using them but somehow they never see the bullet coming until it's too late.

Sarge spat on the floor. "Zilch, the one reason alota the people out there bleed for this place is that they know Morork's not about to sell them into slavery, pimp out our kids or cut them up for the organleggers and ghouls. Or worse, wake up in some corp test lab one morning. Using your contacts to move drek like that through our turf is one thing, selling someone who saved our asses is another. Penrith Orks take care of their friends."

"I'm thinking of this girl as much as you are!" Zilch lied; if he was a cartoon character his pupils would have been Y-shaped. "How many of us would give our right arms for one of our kids to awaken and get a cushy corporate scholarship? We make a heap of nuyen and get the girl out of this drekhole. Everyone wins!"

Audibly rapping his fingers on the arm of his throne, Morork scratched his chin as he considered the issue. "I don't have any more time for this. Dexter, what would you feel to be appropriate recompense for the girl?"

It took him a while to consider. "I'd want the protection contract for the southwest tenement, a new bike from the garage and a tune-up and resupply for all my men on the house."

"Trade in your old bike for your pick from the garage, a free service coupon for you and each of your men and a night at Mandy's on the house for every member of the Lidless Eyes," Morork countered.

"Done," Dexter agreed, nodding.

"Good. Vallerie, the girl is yours on two conditions. First, she'll repay us for the clothes, water, food and medical supplies by summoning elementals to help with the reconstruction effort. Second, the day after tomorrow, I want her out of Penrith. I don't care where you take her or what you do with her but the Penrith Orks are NOT going to take responsibility for her. Sarge, you green?"

"Emerald green, sir," Sarge answered.

"What about me?" Zilch whined.

Morork drew a Predator III out of nowhere, lining up a shot right between Zilch's eyes. "The Lidless Eyes are as convenient for me as they are for you, so they stay. I trust Valkyrie and Sarge to have my back in a firefight, so I need them. You live because I don't feel like trading apologies with the Fu Shan Chu. Scan me?"

Zilch slowly nodded, his eyes not leaving the barrel of the gun. I'd underestimated him, we was smart enough to back down in the face of obvious peril.

Morork put the gun away. "Right, now all of you frag off, I've got real business to sort out sometime today. Valkyrie, get the kid down to the pits, they can use a hand."

Nodding, Vallerie led me away. Dexter followed us, waiting until we were outside before he grabbed my escort's shoulder. "Hey, Valkyrie, no hard feelings, kay? Just biz."

Valkyrie turned and grabbed his crotch so hard stears started streaming down his face. "I can think of two things you don't need to hold a gun," she told him evenly, "by all accounts, nobody would miss them either. If your boys so much as look at our kids funny again, you be sitting to pee for the rest of your life."

Letting go, she put her hand on my back and pushed me past the guards, who were too busy snickering at Dexter to pay attention to me. We left Dexter doubled over on the floor behind us, wheezing.

Vallerie led me south out of the mall into an area that had been constructed over a road and around the frames of several gutted buildings. The ground had also been dug out for the installation of several landing pads that could be raised through the roof, which could open and close, and down to a level underground. Some of the old concrete buildings, along with several newer plasticrete supports, had collapsed and fallen across the landing pads. The pit crews were using everything at their disposal to try and move the debris as fast as they could, from forklifts and drones to some of the big converted Roadmasters like the one I'd seen outside the Museum of Fire while others tried to cut the plasticrete into smaller chunks.

"I'm surprised you don't have your own wizards helping," I commented to Vallerie as we walked over to where the engineers were pouring over a simulation program. They seemed to be trying every way they could to come up with a better method of shifting the plasticrete.

"Grandma's laid out in the clinic," Vallerie informed me. "Slung one spell too many fighting off King Brown... I'll explain later."

Clearing my throat as we talked up to their table, I nodded to the group in greeting. "Hi, Morork said you might have use for an elemental?"

They looked at me for a few moments before the eldest, a wiry grey-haired ork, nodded. "Sure, kid, why not? Can your spirit magically lift ten tons?"

I frowned. "Honestly, I don't know. My earth elemental seemed pretty strong but ten tons might be a bit much."

"Kid, not that we don't appreciate all the help we can get but we've got a team of trolls that can't lift that fraggin' pillar."

Looking over at the pillar, I considered the problem. "You think you've got anything that can lift it a little? Jacks or forklifts or something?"

"Tried it," one of the others sighed, taking off his glasses to rub his eyes. "we can lift one end but we've got nothing that'll roll to jam underneath and take the weight."

"An earth elemental might not be able to lift it but it's made out of dirt," I explained, "it should be able to take the weight and roll along under the column. As long as your men can push it along."

They stared at me for a few moments before standing up in unison. "Jonsey," the eldest one shouted to one of his crew, "get the forklifts up the front, we've got an idea!"

The plan worked. It wasn't as fast as I'd envisioned but we got there. Outside, I summoned the earth elemental from a pile of sand. It was slow going because I had to translate the engineer's instructions to the elemental step by step. When we'd finally gotten the elemental under the column and ready to roll, it turned out we still needed two Roadmasters and all the forklifts and drones in the shop to push the thing along. Once it was outside, we moved it to one side and I ordered the elemental to slowly come out from under the column, which lowered it gently to the ground.

With that large piece done, the rest was relatively easy to shift with manpower. My elemental swept up all the loose debris and dropped it in a neat pile outside while the trolls and orks handled the heavier pieces with the help of their forklifts and a crane. At the end of it all, the entire crew cheered as the Jade Dragon finally came in for landing.

It wasn't an actual dragon, of course. As far as I could tell, the Jade Dragon was a customized Banshee LAV, or 'thunderbird' class vehicle. LAVs are a kind of ground effect vehicle that move, as far as I can tell, based on a combination of ground effect, VTOL thrusters and whatever the scientific version of black magic is. The end result is a tank that can fly like a fighter jet and hover like a helicopter at low altitudes. Seeing one land up close is impressive, the air displacement alone causing near gale force winds. The Dragon itself was painted in mottled blue and green camouflage, scored and scratched in places showing the dull silver of the composite ceramic armour underneath. The main gun on the turret was a Vigilant Rotary Assault Cannon, the minigun version of the Panther Assault Cannon like Kosko had used in Shiawase Tower.

When the hatch opened, I had to blink a few times as the pilots stepped down the ramp the pit crew rolled up to the side for them. One was a 9' tall, curvaceous, troll woman with short red hair. The other was a 5' 4" tall, rail thin, blonde elf with A-cups. Both were wearing flight suits that looked like opaque black second skins. The elf had three datajacks implanted in her temple, which was shaved on that side while the rest of her hair was left to grow long. She also had a jagged tribal tattoo that extended from just under her right eye down to the nape of her neck. The troll accessorized her second skin with a vest that was festooned with broaches, rings and pockets which probably contained more of the same.

"Storm Riders," Vallerie whispered in my ear, answering the question before I'd had a chance to even ask.

"What, like a gang?" I asked, perplexed.

Vallerie smirked. "Sort of, though they wouldn't call themselves that. The Storm Riders are a magical initiatory group dedicated to running the Blue Labyrinth, cutting straight through the mana storm. They are the overland smugglers in Sydney; nobody else is crazy enough to even try."

My eyes bugged out. "They fly straight through the mana storm? How nuts are they?"

"Crazy, not deaf," the elf called out as she and her companion turned towards us, grinning from ear to ear. "Hey, Valkyrie, you started taking babysitting jobs now?"

Vallerie grinned back and hugged the elf before clasping hands with the troll in a warm greeting. "Naomi, meet my drinking buddies. The elf with the big mouth that never shuts up is Rocket; the other one that barely ever speaks is Rolling Stone."

"I speak," Stone grumbled, "it's just hard getting a word in edgeways."

I looked between the two of them incredulously. "Rock and Roll?"

"I know, isn't is awesome!" Rocket enthused. "We really didn't do it on purpose, I was using the callsign 'Rocket' when I was younger than you were playing video games. Stone ran with a thrill gang in her youth, got the name from falling off her bike all the time and just picking herself up for another go. Toughest bitch in Australia, no joke."

Sone rolled her eyes.

"Do you really fly through the mana storm?" I asked, not really believing it. When the mana storm decides to sweep over town, most Sydneysiders run for the nearest warded bunker and pray to whatever they believe in that the wraiths won't find them.

If anything, Rocket's grin got wider. I worried that if she smiled any harder, she my decapitate herself. "YEP! We're Storm Riders, the few and the proud. Your average flight jock hasn't got a snowball's chance in hell running the Wollondilly but we've got the magical edge. Don't let the 'jacks fool you; I'm an Adept that specializes in flying bad boys like the Jade Dragon. Stone here is a badass mage, I've yet to see her pass out from drain. I do the flying; she shields us from all the mojo flying about out there."

Blinking stupidly, it took a moment for me to process her rapid-fire way of speaking. "Wait, what's a Wollondilly?"

She pulled out her commlink like she was prepared for the question and brought up a holographic map of what I assumed was the Blue Mountains. "See this river? That's the Wollondilly. Penrith is up here, just north of the Warragamba Dam, which is why we stop here this side of the Labyrinth. We run southwest over the dam, down the Wollondilly then turn up towards Katoomba and exit out of the storm through the Megalong Valley. And then we come back the same way. As long as you're good enough to dodge government patrols in the Megalong and can resist the mana storm for a few hours, you're golden."

You think you're never going to meet any real life action heroes, then suddenly life surprises you by throwing them all at you at once. "That's... awesome but crazy! What about the Storm Wraiths?"

"Pffft, sloooow moooovers," Rocket drawled, pantomiming someone moving in slow motion. "We crank the Dragon up to max speed, they don't even know we're coming until we've already gone. T-birds are about the only thing fast enough and tough enough to do it. Try and roll up the highway in a tank, the storm will probably drive you all crazy after your mage dies trying to handle the spells and wraiths. Take a jet and the wild physical spells will rip the bird apart in three seconds. Of course, the illusions and such would probably stop you in your tracks long before that, which is why you need a pilot that can cognitively process multiple visual sensory inputs, like me!"

Stone sighed. "What that jargon means is that she can look out the front viewport while rigging. That way, she can see astral space as well as physical space, so she knows what's real and what isn't."

Looking between the two of them, I couldn't believe my ears. "And you just tell anyone you meet all your secrets like that?!?"

Both of them broke out laughing.

"The problem is, Naomi, that everyone knows how to get through the mana storm, theoretically," Vallerie explained, "it's just too expensive for anyone else to want to. These two trained together for years before they were even allowed to make their first attempt. Now add to the cost of training all the foci they're wearing, anchored spells, the Jade Dragon itself which is ten million nuyen before customization... about the only way these two can even make a profit is by smuggling. On top of that, your investment could just disappear in the blink of an eye."

"Not to mention watching all your money drain away with the cost of fuel, repairs and ammo," Rocket groaned.

"Or your partner's bar tab," Stone grumbled.

"Hey!" Rocket protested, putting her hands on her hips indignantly.

Stone put her arm around her partner's shoulders. "Come on, I'll buy you a beer or two. Nice meeting you, Naomi."

Watching them walk away with their arms around each other, I knew I shouldn't be shocked but I was. "Are they..."

"Lovers?" Vallerie finished for me. "Absolutely; aren't they cute together?"

A million questions ran through my mind, all of which I wasn't sure I wanted to know the answer to. Then I was ashamed that I'd even thought for a moment that the answer to every one of those questions wasn't 'the same as everyone else'. Homosexuality wasn't a big deal outside of uptight 'family' corporations like Shiawase these days but an Elf/Troll lesbian relationship? It was like discovering that the Loch Ness Monster really does exist.

The engineers thanked me for my help before I sent the earth elemental home and Vallerie took me to get some food. She led me downstairs into the underground, which had once been merely a single level parking garage. They'd dug out a lot more levels in fifty odd years with corridors branching off in all directions. The biggest feature we passed was a water purification system, fed by a pipe that Vallerie informed me was connected to Penrith Lakes, the other reason why Penrith was the perfect place for an ork colony despite the mana storms being so close.

She let me into her apartment, a welded-together shack that clung to the side of a deep pit down which the residents could ride elevators to the lower levels. Inside was sparsely furnished, she didn't even have a trideo just two chairs, a table, a single bed, a cupboard and a strong footlocker. Kitchens and bathrooms were a communal deal. She took something packaged in foil out of the cupboard and handed it to me.

"What's this?" I asked, turning it over in my hands.

"Dinner," she replied with a snicker. "They're called MREs; military rations. They taste like cardboard but they're nutritious and they have a half life rather than an expiry date."

I couldn't open it, in the end I was forced to ask for scissors. Instead, Vallerie opened it for me, which I found embarrassing even if she didn't mind. Saying it tasted like cardboard was generous and on top of that it had the consistency of tofu but I ate it grudgingly. Thinking as we ate, an idea occurred to me. "Um, Vallerie, could you get me back over the wall?"

"Over the wall? You got family there?"

"No," I answered with a shake of my head. "There's something I need to get. The trip would be worth your time."

She looked at me for a few moments. "You're talking biz?"

"Yes. There's a Bulldog step van full of guns over the wall. It also has a book I need to get back still inside it. You and whoever we need can have the van, the guns and whatever else as long as I can keep the book."

"You don't have a key for a van," she said positively.

"No, you'd have to crack the lock and hotwire it."

"And where did this van come from?"

"Someone who can't miss it anymore," I answered, trying not to think about Cook and failing.

"Ok. How many guns are we talking about?"

She believed me after I described the contents of the van that I could remember in detail. The closest I could get to her agreement, however, was a promise that she'd think about it. As we were finishing our MREs, there was a knock on the door. Vallerie drew her pistol before checking who was outside through a secret camera in the doorframe. When she opened the door, Beth walked in and glared down at me.

"You! You scared me half to death disappearing on us like that!" she scolded.

Sighing, I bowed reflexively in apology. "Sumimasen."

She looked confused. "Suma-what?"

"Sumimasen," Vallerie explained for me. "It's Japanese for 'sorry'."

"Well... good!" Beth finally said, not knowing what else to say. A moment later, I was almost crushed by a friendly ork hug. It took me a moment to be comfortable enough to awkwardly put my arms around her back.

At that precise moment, I noticed that Vallerie had a mirror on the wall. For the first time, I saw Kumiko's face in the mirror, staring back at me, tears leaking down her cheeks.


The statement in my signature is false.
Re: No Time for Second Chances [message #64111 is a reply to message #62484] Sun, 26 August 2012 16:31 Go to previous messageGo to next message
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Chapter 7

The underground was surprisingly warm. Over the twenty four hours after being hugged by Beth the night before, Vallerie and I had spent the day running from one corner of Penrith to the other, summoning earth elementals to help with the clean up effort. I'd gone to bed totally exhausted, only to wake three hours later feeling fresh as a daisy with Vallerie snoozing beside me in her half-suit of form fitting body armour. All I had was a single sheet over me, which was all I really needed. I could hear the murmur of voices through the walls, the occasional clank of footsteps and the constant hum of electricity, though none of it was particularly alarming.

Feeling restless, I quietly slipped out of bed and hesitantly crept over to the mirror on the wall barefoot. Vallerie had loaned me a Neil the Ork Barbarian t-shit that hung on me like a dress, the neck wide enough that it slipped over one shoulder whenever I moved. Seeing my face in the mirror was less of a shock, the old saw about time healing all wounds turning out to be true.

Kumiko had been cute, I remembered that much from the photo of her that I'd come across during my legwork. While her body had been possessed, she hadn't been cute as much as scary. Seeing myself through her eyes, the sense of innocence about her was gone. It was like looking in the face of an impossibly perfect child soldier, far too knowing for her years but I was still cute. In fact, I was the sort of cute that made fathers lock their daughters away in high towers to await handsome princes, which made more sense of why the little girl might ask if I was a faerie. It made me wonder how much genetweaking Dr. Shinibata had put her unborn child through.

Bunching my hair up with my hands to get it out of the way of my pointed ears, I wondered how I'd look with shorter hair. Strange as it was, I found myself wanting to differentiate myself from Kumiko, no just for practical reasons but for the sake of my own sanity. As much as I knew that it wasn't my fault what the spirit did, I couldn't help but feel like a thief despite living in a dream come true. My only dissatisfaction was that Kumiko had been a bit on the scrawny side. I was ready to blame being stuck in a cell under inhuman conditions for a few years for that, however.

Curling up in one of Vallerie's chairs, I hugged my legs and considered what to do next. As the hours passed, all I could think about was the Bulldog step van loaded with guns that Cook and I had left behind in a lock-up in Kellyville on the other side of the wall. I'd left the book there too, which was the important thing. I cursed myself for leaving my commlink and the sustaining foci behind, I could really have used them right about now.

It must have been early morning when a noise just outside the door made Vallerie bolt upright, drawing a Colt Manhunter heavy pistol from under her pillow. She seemed to know exactly where I was despite being asleep, giving me a quick hand signal to hide behind a closet. Heeding her, I put my back to the wall and tried to breath as slowly and quietly as possible, though I couldn't help peeking out from around the corner.

Throwing the door open, Vallerie came face-to-barrel with an assault shotgun as the woman standing in the doorway found the heavy pistol jammed against the bridge of her nose. The newcomer was taller but thinner than Vallerie, her coffee-coloured skin and almond eyes showing both African and Asian lineage. A blue and black bandanna held her hair out of her face and she was wearing biker leathers of the same colours festooned with steel spikes, like post apocalyptic dominatrix. Her eyes held a thousand yard stare as she considered Vallerie, looking like something out of a street war sim come to life. After a tense moment, they both smirked and roughly clasped hands, lowering their guns.

"Good to see you, chica," Vallerie greeted. "Naomi, get out here. I want you to meet my Chapter Mistress, Diabolique of the Desolation Angels."

Trotting out awkwardly, I tried to resist the impulse to cover myself and bowed cordially. "Um, good to meet you," I said apprehensively as Diabolique looked down on me with those cold, calculating, orbs. They weren't emotionally dead in the way that cybereyes are, it was something else. I got the feeling that Diabolique could peel someone like a grape with a meaningless smile on her face. Her ethereal grace and poise while wearing high-heeled combat boots was also surprisingly intimidating; It wasn't just that she towered over me either. Vallerie might have been an ork and obviously as tough as they come but she exuded a motherly quality that inspired trust. Diabolique was a cold, ruthless, bitch and she let everyone around her know it with every movement.

Stepping past Vallerie, her heels clicking on the plastic and metal floor, Diabolique took my jaw gently but firmly in hand and raised my eyes up to look into hers. After staring at each other for a moment, my eyes seemed to slip out of focus. The world around us seemed to have the colour leached out of it, leaving everything but Diabolique and Vallerie cast in hues of luminescent grey. Vallerie glowed in muted shades of orange with tinges of yellow and red and a core of deep purple shot with pink. By contrast, Diabolique shone like a lantern at night, her purple and red aura barely contained within a shell of greens and blues crackling with deep black worms that seemed to writhe across her skin. For a moment, I saw a mask of energy overlayed on her features, companied by a buzzing sound but it passed so quickly I had to wonder if I'd just imagined it.

"She's a Mystic Adept," Diabolique informed us in the same tone that you'd use to describe the weather. "You know the charter, Valkyrie, we don't rush magicians."

"I'm not asking for that," Vallerie replied, stepping next to her superior but keeping her tone humble. "She's alone and she needs help. We can place her under our protection. I've seen her work, she's talented and she knows the score. She'll be a good friend to have on our side in a few years."

I was too busy trying to wrap my head around the first concept to pay full attention to the rest. "Wait, I'm a what?"

Diabolique turned her gaze back to me and removed her hand, stroking my hair back behind my ears inquisitively. "Little thing, a Mystic Adept is a cross between a Magician and a Physical Adept. You are able to cast spells and summon spirits and see the astral plane but you are unable to perform astral projection. In return for this limitation, you have some access to the powers of an Adept. Unfortunately, you will do neither to the same capacity without... significant effort and training. I also sense that you have a mentor spirit, I'm sure she's made herself known to you already."

I nodded. "If that's what I am, then what are you? You glow like a Christmas tree."

Her mouth twitched in amusement. "I'm a Physical Adept on the Warrior Path. I call my mentor Artemis the Huntress, the virgin goddess. My way will not be yours, however. You walk a different path. The Desolation Angels don't allow those who can summon spirits into our ranks because of the temptations of the Insect Spirits to whom we are sworn enemies. Speaking of which, Vallerie, you missed a fine fight."

Vallerie sighed. "Yeah, I got stuck here when the ghouls swarmed us; more than enough targets to go around. I'd take fire elemental backup again anyday though," she admitted, nodding at me in gratitude. "Do you think there's still a hive in Paramatta?"

"I think the infection runs deeper," Diabolique murmured. "I think the burrowers have moved their queens deep under the mountains where the storms can't reach. But this is a topic for a later time. I'm willing to extend my protection to this girl, will you explain what is expected of her?"

Vallerie nodded with a serious expression on her face.

When Diabolique turned to leave, I stepped forward. "Wait, one moment please!"

Diabolique pasued, looking at me over her shoulder. Bowing again in gratitude, I considered what I was going to say carefully. "Arigatou gozaimasu," I thanked her formally in Japanese. It was a safe bet, Japanese culture is so pervasive that everyone recognizes it. "I think I can already do something to repay your kindness, onee chan. I know of a place in Kellyville where a large cache of weapons has been stored. The former owners are... dead. If I could beg your indulgence, there is a book there that I need to return to its rightful owner, it is all that I ask for in return."

"How many guns are we talking about?" Vallerie asked pointedly.

"Enough to start a small war," I answered. "Or finish one."

After a long silence, Diabolique smirked again. "I like this morsel, Valkyrie. Good job," she congratulated before leaving. I took that as a good sign.

Vallerie put away her gun and slapped me playfully on the shoulder before telling me to get dressed. We'd picked up some more clothes for me along with a backpack to carry everything in, so I was able to change into some clean clothes after a visit to the communal showers. Strangely, they don't make as much armoured clothing for children off the rack as they do for adults. Being practical above all else in a nation known for practical people, the orks of Penrith made their own armoured clothing for their kids. Most of it was leather reinforced with composite ballistic plates scavenged from other articles of clothing, ingeniously recycled. I went with a thick leather jacket and tough cargo pants over knee-high boots. It felt strange to me to just wear a simple sleeveless shirt under the jacket, I kind of felt naked without my own form fitting armour underneath but they didn't make it in children's sizes. Vallerie added a blue and black scarf and wristband to my attire, showing my affiliation to the Desolation Angels.

"Do you think I need a haircut?" I asked Vallerie was we waited in line at the cafeteria. The food on sale was standard soy-based stuff but the cook had managed to make it smell divine somehow.

"Might not hurt to start looking more street chic," she acknowledged. "I'll take you over to see Reggie after breakfast."

I made a small squeaking noise when I was grabbed roughly from behind and hugged mercilessly. "Heyya!" Beth greeted enthusiastically. "You heading out today?"

"Elf... can't... breathe..." I managed to choke out. Beth immediately let go. "Woah, sorry about that," she apologized sheepishly. Vallerie snickered at us both.

"Um, yeah, last morning here," I answered her question once I got my breath back.

"Awesome! Do you think I could come with? Dad needs someone to fetch some parts from over the wall, does that scan, Vallerie?"

"Null sheen," Vallerie agreed, "we'll be riding out with the Angels."

Beth covered her mouth in alarm. "Oh my god! You're letting me ride out with the Desolation Angels?!?"

"Why not? You're almost old enough for the rush," Vallerie said with a smile. "Diabolique's leading the pack, show you've got what it takes and maybe she'll consider you."

Stunned into silence for a few moments, Beth gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, nearly goring me with her tusks, before running off. "What was that about?" I asked, clueless.

"Being a Desolation Angel is a big deal out here," Vallerie explained, dishing out soyegg and soybacon for us both. "For a lot of girls, it's the only chance to climb out of this drekhole. Don't get me wrong, I love Penrith and I'll always be a Penrith girl but everyone here calls it what it is. I've got another fifteen years on my bike if I'm lucky and I started riding when I was younger than Beth. It's either that or prostitution for most of the girls. Maybe tie yourself to some man, pump out babies and ignore it when he comes home drunk or high and slaps you around. Sorry to say but unless I sock enough money away to afford Leónization, you'll still look twenty when you're burying my wrinkly old hide. Living with that hanging over you... lota orks are willing to take the big risks."

Walking to an empty table, I considered how to respond. "I know I can't say I understand," I said seriously as I ate. "I grew up in a corp before... total opposite to this place. Safe and secure but everything's... scripted; like you're an actor in a sim. If I'd stayed there longer, I think I might have gone crazy. Maybe I'm already crazy."

Vallerie looked at me for a long while, taking a sip of her soykaf. "You know, you're the most mature little girl I've ever met. Hell, I've known less mature adults, elves included. What did they get you to study back in that cushy corp school?"

I smiled brightly, happy to have something familiar to talk about even if I was about to spin a tall tale. "Matrix theory and programming! I scored in the top percentile for the aptitude test."

Vallerie shook her head and chuckled. "An awakened elf matrix prodigy... maybe I'm getting too old for the Sixth World. If you were in a corp school, you've got a SIN, right?"

Sobering, I shook my head. "It got... deleted."

She stopped moving in the middle of chewing a particularly tough piece of soybacon. "Crash 2.0?"

I nodded.

"I'm sorry. What about your parents? You know where they are?"

"They're dead," I lied. "My whole family lost their SINs and couldn't get them renewed. Dad had some sort of deal going but he... he just didn't come home one day. Mom lost it, got addicted to beetles, stopped eating or drinking. She tried to sell me to a bunch of men in suits when she got desperate but they took her too and sold her parts to organleggers. I was thrown in a cell... like a laboratory; I think they were studying something but I never saw anyone. Food was delivered through a slot in the wall but they gave me things to read and games. I'm not sure how long I was down there for, must have been a few weeks at least. Then the room started shaking and my door... broke. There were people rushing around outside, so I pulled the door open and just ran the way everyone else was going, then I slipped away before anyone noticed me. My... what did she call it, a mentor spirit? She told me how to summon an elemental. Next thing I know, I run right into Sarge and his team running from the ghouls."

"Crazy story," Vallerie commented, looking sad. "Crazy enough to be true; I'm sorry about your mom."

For a moment, I couldn't believe she'd bought it. I didn't feel any joy at the fact, however, just the opposite. Savagely wiping tears from my eyes before they could form, knowing that being on the verge of crying was just adding more authenticity to my act and hating myself for it, I shrugged. "It doesn't matter, she was dead long before they chopped her up."

Sighing, Vallerie gave my shoulder a comforting squeeze. "So these weapons, what's the story behind them?"

"There was a woman who worked with Dad for a while, I never knew her name. They had a deal going; Dad was using some old contacts of his to move guns around the city. He was good with mechanical stuff so he wanted to start a black market armoury, buy me a new SIN and get me back in school. They got a bunch of guns and a big truck so they could move it all at a moment's notice. Mom was already going down the drain, so Dad left me to look after her and showed me where he kept everything in case he didn't come back."

"And all the guns were still there after your Dad disappeared?" she asked suspiciously.

I nodded. "I thought... he might have skipped out on us. Mom was getting crazier and crazier, just couldn't handle life outside the enclave. But whenever I checked on the guns, they were still there. I hid the keys on Mom so she wouldn't try to trade off what we had for more drugs then she got mad and tried to sell me."

We finished the rest of the meal in silence before Vallerie led me to the hairdresser. Yes, even on the edge of civilization, style is important to people and street style was Reggie's business. The shop wasn't hard to find, it was the only store on the underground strip that had 'Reggie's Salon' painted in red and blue across the front with an armoured troll standing guard inside.

Reggie was a character, you could tell that the moment you stepped into the store. He was impossible to miss. He was a well built ork man and his black jumpsuit had the gold zipper undone down to just above his crotch with no shirt underneath. He still, however, wore a thin red tie loosely around his neck along with a few slender gold chains. His hair was peroxide blonde, worn shoulder length, combed straight down the centre of his scalp and curled at the ends, like he wanted to be the poster child for the Jack of Diamonds. The girl he was working on looked like she'd walked in and asked for her hair to look like someone had set a firecracker off in her brainpan. It was long and spiked, starting red at the roots but gradually turning iridescent yellow at the tips.

"Hey, Bob," Vellerie greeted the troll bodyguard on the way past, "how's Suzy?"

"Fine," he growled, his deep voice sounding like he had a larynx full of gravel and broken glass. "Needs a wheelbarrow to walk around but won't let anyone fuss over her. Stubborn woman... no offence."

"None taken," Vallerie answered with a chuckle.

"Needs a wheelbarrow?" I inquired.

"Bob's wife's an ork," Vallerie explained, "but their kids are gonna be trolls."

I blinked. "That can happen?"

Both Vallerie and Bob laughed. "I know, I know, we weren't expecting it ourselves," Bob explained, "not even just one, three at once! Little buggers kick like mules too, I'll tell you. But Suzy's got the constitution of a Megawombat. Doc says he's seen human girls in worse shape with just one smoothie kid... er, sorry, no offence."

"None taken," I said, echoing Vallerie.

"Ah! Vallerie the Valkyrie!" Reggie interrupted us with a boisterous, if slightly effeminate, greeting. He also affected a European accent, playing his role to the hilt. "What we have here, new canvas little girl? Oh dear, what have we been doing to our hair?!? Where I come from, you'd get ten to life doing that to a child."

I smiled as much because I had Reggie pegged as for his entertainment value. He looked like a bit of fluff but he was playing to a stereotype, trading off his natural charisma to sell his business. Why just cut people's hair and style them outrageously when you can do it with memorable flare? Playing my own part, I giggled, which delighted him no end.

"Looks like you've made another fan, Reggie," Vallerie observed with a smirk. "Figured she needed something to give her more street cred."

"Maybe something shorter?" I asked, plaintively blowing an errant strand out of my face. "This stuff gets in the way too much."

Reggie sighed. "Plenty of girls would fall on their knees for hair as long as yours. But so be it! I have just the thing in mind..."

An hour later, I walked out with my new 'look' as Reggie called it. Somehow, though I suspected the local smugglers and thieves, he'd managed to get his hands on programmable nanodye, nanites suspended in a gel that would adhere to strands of hair and change the colour of existing strands permanently. It'd go black at the roots when my hair started growing out but until then it'd be deep crimson with black streaks. He'd gone for a feathered, shaggy, look that exposed my ears and neck, which made me look slightly tomboyish but still feminine. I liked it a lot.

Beth obviously liked my haircut when we found her outside leaning against a Hyundai Offroader bike with sidecar. "Wow! That really suits you! Wish dad would let me see Reggie, I've gotta do my own hair," she complained, flicking the uneven green streaks in her own dark hair.

"Thanks... is that your bike?" I asked, impressed.

She grinnded. "Oh, yeah! Well, kinda, it's my dad's, but he lets me take it out on errands and to practice driving. No guns and he won't take the sidecar off for me yet, guess it's kinda like training wheels, but I take it out every chance I get."

"Isn't that dangerous out here?"

She chuckled, pointing at the Browning Ultra Power strapped to her hip. "Very, which is why we learn to shoot before we learn to ride. Besides I go around with some of the older kids. Last drekbrain that tried to mess with us got what was coming to him."

It was yet another reminder that I was in the middle of a dog-eat-dog world. Kids with guns, riding bikes, their only hope in life to join a gang... you can watch the trideo, slot a sim, but seeing it in real life is something else.

Vallerie nodded sagely. "I wouldn't let Beth ride with us otherwise. Why don't you get in her sidecar, it'll be a lot more comfortable than the back of my Scorpion."

I was about to agree when we were interrupted by the sound of an engine gunning down the street. Another biker, one of the Desolation Angels from her colours, pulled up next to us. Her face was painted white with dark purple lipstick and eyeshadow with a beauty spot that had a curly-cue underneath on her left cheek. Wavy salt-and-pepper hair was gelled back in wild strips that made it look like the wind was blowing through her hair even when she was standing still and dangly silver earrings. She wore a dark blue longcoat over tight black leathers with shiny fire-red heeled boots with a bunch of straps. Her bike was a Suzuki Aurora painted blue with a stream of fiery black skulls painted down the sides. Twin SMGs were mounted over the handelbars with triggers on the handles themselves and she carried multiple combat blades under her longcoat and she had a bunch of guns strapped to the sides of the bike. Underneath all the warpaint, I could tell she was human but when she smiled, I saw that her canines had been replaced with bright silver fangs.

"Bringing some snacks along, Valkyrie?" she asked, looking straight at me as she licked her lips like I was a juicy steak on a plate. "Mmmmm, such a tasty morsel."

"Frag off, Perv," Vallerie grumbled, rolling her eyes, "she's too young, even for you."

"No such thing as too young, you know how much I like a little lamb," she said, throwing her head back to laugh, long and loud. She stopped when a red dot appeared on her chest, looking down at it then up to where Beth was aiming down the sight of her Ultra-Power, chewing on a stick of bubble gum. Turning slightly, she aimed to one side before pulling the trigger, splattering a devil rat across the pavement. "Sorry about that," Beth apologized ingenuously.

Perv stared at her for a moment before breaking into another grin. "You I like. See you around, little lamb," she said before gunning the engine again and driving off.

Blinking stupidly, I looked up at Vallerie. "What the frag was that?"

The older ork sighed. "That was Perv."

"Perv? You mean that's her NAME? Perv?"

"Short for Pervert, yeah, crazy as a cut snake and even more twisted. Stay away from her, she's big trouble and she's got your scent now."

I shook my head, trying to understand. "Got my scent? What?"

Vallerie tapped her nose. "Olfactory boosters; she's chipped to the gills, boasts that she doesn't have a soul to lose to the cyber; goes in for genetweaking, nanoware, geneware, bioware... a real freak for augmentation. Hell, when I first met her, she was Hispanic. With horns. And udders. These days, she's a bit more conservative. Hell on wheels with those blades, though."

Not wanting to know any more about Pervert, I put on the helmet that Beth handed to me and got in the sidecar, throwing my bag into the luggage compartment behind the seat. Beth drove like she'd been born in the seat, following Vallerie to where she'd left her Scorpion and then on to the cavalcade of the Desolation Angels where Diabolique was rounding up some older ork girls with their own bikes. Pervert noticed us and blew me a kiss from near the front of the pack.

Leaning over so she could talk to me, Vallerie scowled. "Don't worry; Diabolique will frag her up if she so much as touches you while you're under our flag. She's just pushing our buttons."

We drove next to Vallerie near the rear of the pack but in front of the new bloods when we rolled out with Diabolique in the lead. There were ten or so full members between us, a mixture of orks, trolls, elves, humans, one dwarf and a changeling of wildly varying ethnicities. The only common denominators were that they were all women, all wore some element of blue and black and they all looked harder than a coffin nail. There wasn't any uniformity to their bikes either aside from the colour of the paint jobs.

The southside barrens look empty but they're not. Everyone knows that there are plenty of people living over the wall, SINless and destitute. That's how the ghouls and the insect spirits get by, preying on the weak and helpless in the herd. The only utilities in the barrens are those that people provide for themselves or steal from the corporations. Seeing it up close, I remembered the Urban Brawl game I'd watched from high above a little patch of hell just like the one we were driving past only a few days ago. Someone just like the people around me trying to sneak past the fence only to be splattered by an assault cannon the way Beth had shot the devil rat. No, scratch that, the devil rat had died with more dignity. They were hard, callous, people but at least they knew who they were and wore their colours openly.

We didn't see anyone until we reached the Paramatta gates. Diabolique said a few words to one of the heavily armed and armoured KE guards, passed off a credstick and we were in like Flynn. The contrast between inside the barrens and inside the wall was remarkably small. People walked in the streets, warrens of apartment blocks dominated the landscape, security drones hovered overhead but no-one so much as said boo to us as we rode past. Paramatta itself looked like a war zone, or maybe more of a war zone than usual. I swear I saw claw marks in plasticrete walls and pavement. We weren't the only civilians visibly armed either, it was like driving through the Wild West in a modern day setting.

"Diabolique wants to know where this cache of yours is," Vallerie said through my helmet's earphones. I gave her an address in return. It was too late now, if they were going to frag me over there wasn't anything I could do to stop them.

When we veered off towards Kellyville, I closed my eyes and prayed that the van was still there. Kellyville as a suburb was on the wrong side of the wall when it went up. A second wall on the other side segregated it from the barrens, however. When the corps had moved in after the Awakening and it had become obvious that expending towards the mana storm was folly, instead they flattened the newer suburb of Kellyville northwest of Paramatta to put up low-cost apartments for the lowest rung of wageslaves. In employment terms, they call these workers 'disposable labour', grunts that don't require any cyber to do their job or are forced to pay for their own upgrades out of their own pockets. If North Sydney and the Arkoblocks were civilized and lawful while the Barrens are uncivilized and unlawful then Paramatta was lawful but uncivilized while Kellyville was unlawful but civilized. It's a strange mixture, Paramatta is safe because everyone's armed and nobody wants to risk starting a fight but Kellyville is safe because the will to fight has been sucked out of the residents by sixty-hour work weeks and the vices that occupy what little free time they have left.

We drove past a girl who must have been no more than thirteen or fourteen watering a tiny patch of vegetables inside a greenhouse, heavily pregnant and wearing nothing but a bikini top and ripped board shorts. A sign out the front read 'Fresh Tomartoes 10¥ea' scratched into a stolen road sign. If I'd had a commlink I would have taken a picture, the image encapsulated everything that was wrong with western Sydney.

Cook and I had left the Bulldog in an abandoned lock-up on the southwestern end of the suburb right next to the second wall. The realty bubble had broken before construction was completed, leaving the block abandoned. Even the squatters had better places to stay in Kellyville, so the lot remained abandoned except for Cook's makeshift safehouse. We'd buried the keys just outside, so I was able to dig them up with ease and let everyone inside. To my relief, the Bulldog was still there.

Leading Diabolique inside, I turned on the lights. She whistled when she saw the racks full of guns and ammo. "You weren't kidding when you said this was an arsenal, kid." Nodding, I was quiet as I found the book alongside a pile of my old clothes. It was hard to believe they were ever mine. Picking up the book, I threw her the keys and walked out, leaving the Angels to take whatever they wanted.

"You ok?" Beth asked, giving me a worried look.

I nodded again. "Yeah, just... some places have ghosts, you know? Not real ghosts, I mean, but...."

Beth nodded back at me. "I know what you mean."

I didn't think she really did but I let it slide. Sitting on the edge of her bike, I absently ran my free hand over the sleek curve of the chassis while the other clutched the book to my chest. The book had a fresh, comforting, scent even though it wasn't made of real paper. As much as I love virtual books, there's still something comforting about the feel of a hardcopy tome in your arms.

Feeling Beth's hand on my shoulder, I turned to look her in the eye. Worry was written all over her face. "You ok?" she asked seriously. "Valler... Valkyrie told me this used to be your parent's place."

"They're long gone," I answered emotionlessly. "I'll be fine. Right now I'm more worried about where I'm gonna doss tonight."

"I've got an idea or two on that score," Vallerie said from where she was keeping lookout by her Scorpion. "I got a safehouse inside the wall, worse comes to worst."

Rule number #1 for living in Sydney: have a place to crash. Preferably a place that can be locked up tight, with a basement or safe room; somewhere you can huddle up with layers of biofibre or living earth between you and the sky. Because when the mana storms come, that's where you want to be.

"Do you mind if I take a look at that book?" Vallerie asked, startling me. I hadn't even realized she'd walked up behind me. Nodding, I handed it to her. She flipped through the pages for a moment before snapping it shut. "Where'd you get this?"

Considering the look on her face, I decided to tell the truth. "A talismonger downtown loaned it to me."

"I see, does this talismonger have a name?"

"Not that I caught," I answered with an embarrassed shrug, "the sign out front was in Chinese... I don't know that much Chinese."

Vallerie held the book in front of my face, pointing one corner at me. "I know this book," she told me gravely. She was about to say more but she was interrupted when the Bulldog's engine finally roared to life. A moment later, Diabolique hopped down into the plasticrete floor of the lock-up carrying a bag that looked like it was stuffed full of goodies. "Anwen!" she shouted over the noise, pointing at a troll woman who was hovering nearby. "Load up Squeak's bike, we're moving out." Turning her attention to us, the Chapter Mistress stalked up to us and practically threw the bag into my arms, nearly winding me. "You did us a real favour today, kid," she congratulated with a pat on the head, "consider this your finder's fee. You come across anything the DA can use or move, remember to call us, alright?"

I part bowed, part nodded, unable to get the sunken feeling out of my stomach that something about the book was going to screw up everything. Diabolique noticed. She looked at Vallerie, down at the book in her hand then back to me before completing the circuit by look back at Vallerie. "Something wrong?"

"I know this book," Valkyrie answered. "It was stolen from Clover's shop three or four months ago. She says she got it from a talismonger downtown. He didn't give his name and the store signs were only written in Chinese."

Diabolique turned her thousand-yard stare down on me. "Describe him."

"Old Chinese guy," I replied, "fiddles with little stones in an octagonal bowl all the time. Has a freaky assistant that appears out of nowhere wearing ancient scholar's robes and a huge Fu Manchu."

"Ill motherfragging Ching," Diabolique spat. In a flash, her arm snaked out, grabbing the pointed tip of my left ear and twisting painfully. I cried out, the intense pain making tears well up in my eyes. "You part of the 105's?"

I tried to shake my head and regretted it immediately. "No! Never heard of 'em!"

"Boss, I believe her," Vallerie vouched for me. "Knowing Ill Ching, he's playing us somehow but Naomi's nothing but a pawn in this. We'll return the book to Clover, she can deal with Ching through the talismonger network."

Diabolique let me go. "Your responsibility," she told Valkyrie in no uncertain terms. Looking back at me, the cold look in her eyes was gone. "Enjoy the spoils, kid. Hope you live long enough to use 'em."

Touching my ear hurt, so I just left it alone, though I could feel the throb of blood to the tip. "Sorry, kid," Vallerie apologized, "I wasn't going to be that direct."

"Not a problem," I accepted the apology reluctantly, patting around my ear to make sure I wasn't bleeding, "she needed to be sure about me. I owe you one. Who the frag are the 105's?"

"Downtown go-gang," Beth answered for her, "Triad affiliated. Rumour is, Ill Ching's the Incense Master for the Green Gang triad. Green Gang's got a lock on talismongers and any awakened drek that passes through the black and grey markets. Even the wagemages have to deal with them."

Wincing when I accidently brushed the sore part of my ear, I tried to brush my hair out of the way of the tip. "No drek? I knew something was up with that fragger."

"How do you mean?" Vallerie probed.

"The car I was in broke down right outside his shop," I explained, "then while I was waiting for the car to be fixed, I felt an urge to go inside and take a look around. I didn't think anything of it at the time but in hindsight, with you knowing the book? At first I thought the crusty old bastard was playing up the tourist angle but he knew drek nobody could have known, not even Ned."

Sighing, Vallerie shook her head. "No offence, but I hate dealing with mages. Get that bag stowed and saddled up, we have to go see Clover. Mind if I hand onto the book?"

I shook my head and dropped the heavy bag into the luggage compartment of the sidecar before getting in and putting my helmet on. "Um, are we gonna have time for me to grab those parts for my Dad?" Beth inquired as she mounted up.

"Don't worry, I'll escort you back home after we get this done, ok?" Vallerie answered. Beth acquiesced and a minute later we were back on the road, the rest of the Angels heading in the opposite direction just after we left swarming around the Bulldog.

Clover's was a storefront in the more affluent Castle Hill district. Where Ill Ching's had that mysterious ancient fortune-cookie/Hong Kong action flick vibe, Clover's was ultramodern through and through. There wasn't any windows and I wished I had some AR goggles or contacts so I could see what Beth was ooohing and ahing over as we stepped through the front door. While the shop was rather plain from the outside without AR, inside was spectacular enough without it. It was like walking into a gun store with everything locked behind glass cases except that the items were held on display individually. It wasn't a large place, about the size of a convenience store or stuffer shack, there was just enough room for a few people to mill about and browse through the AR catalogues. What made the store different was the illusion that rather than walls, the display cases were sitting on the edge of a beach, complete with the sound of wind rustling leaves and rumble of small waves on the shore. Trying to de-focus my eyes, I managed to switch over to astral sight consciously for the first time. The illusion didn't extend there but the view was just as spectacular. Several floating eyeballs swam through the air, following the customers and peeking over their shoulder whenever they stopped to look at something. High above near the ceiling, a crackling blue storm cloud hovered ominously. For a moment, glowing blue eyes glared back at me from the midst of the vapour, startling me and snapping me back to the physical world.

"Hoi, Clover," Vallerie greeted the changeling woman leaning against the counter, staring as us with her eyes narrowed.

"Better not be here on business, Val," Clover warned. As far as changelings go, she'd come through SURGE well. Her skin was red and slightly shiny, small horns grew out of her head and a long tail swished behind her as her snarl showed small fangs. Stepping out around the counter, we got a good look at her digitigrade legs complete with hooves. She was wearing a heavy denim skirt and an alligator skin jacket that I knew had to be armoured but no visible fetishes or foci. Underneath the short sleeves of the jacket, she'd rolled up the sleeves of her blouse to just below the elbow. Her hair was combed back away from her long pointed ears and tied loosely near the end with a black and yellow patterned scarf with a gold pin sticking through it to keep it in place; very Australian neo-tribal chic, nothing but name brands. The one piece of jewellery I noticed was the pendant around her neck, a silver chain attached to a silver pentacle amulet.

"Not DA business, yours," Vallerie said, keeping her tone deliberately light as she held up the book. "You lost this, we came across it. Figured you'd want it back."

Snatching the book, Clover flipped through the pages, her eyes widening. "Holy frag! I thought it was gone, what rock did you kick over to pick this up?"

"Think we can go out back?"

Taking the hint, Clover nodded and led us through what looked like a curtain of vines into an ordinary-looking back room. If you've ever peeked through the back door of a supermarket, you know what the back rooms of a store look like, nothing but bare concrete, fluorescent lighting, kitchenettes and coffee machines. I had to give Clover props for one thing, though, her furniture was clean and comfortable.

"Aren't you worried about watching the store?" Beth asked.

Clover snorted. "No talismonger keeps the real stock out front, kid."

"And if anyone tries knocking this place off, they'll have to deal with the air elemental," I added, catching her attention.

"DA don't rush spellslingers," Clover observed, "physical adept?"

"Diabolique said I was something called a mystic adept," I explained sheepishly, "I'm not a ganger, Valkyrie's just watching out for me."

"Naomi saved our asses down at Penrith," Val explained, "we could have used you, though."

Clover shuddered. "Spirits, no! Ghouls and bugs and toxics? Ewww, I have enough to deal with on my own patch thank-you-very-much. Enough bulldrek, what's the scan?"

Val kindly left it to me to spin the entire tale from the beginning. I covered my visit to Ill Ching's without explaining where I'd been going or coming from then skipped ahead to finding myself fighting ghouls in Penrith and helping out the Devestation Angels in exchange for protection. When I was done, Clover stared at me for a few moments, pulled out her commlink and tapped something into an AR keyboard that I couldn't see. After a few moments, her trideo unit flickered as the phone rang. It rang out several times before finally connecting. My heart skipped a beat when the old Chinese man's face flickered into view.

"Yes, Clover, what do you want?" he demanded, definitely not in the best of moods.

"This kid here says you gave her a book; one of MY books in fact. It was stolen from MY store. Know anything about that?"

Absently, I wondered how far I'd get if I tried to run. I doubted that I'd slip past Val but I really wasn't going to outrun an air elemental. I had the distinct feeling my goose was cooked.

"Only that the perpetrator won't be a problem and I give the book to someone who'd return it to you," Ching answered vaguely.

"HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF A FRAGGING COURIER SERVICE?!? This is my first fragging thesis we're talking about!"

"And I knew it would find its way back to you along with something else of value," Ching explained calmly. "Take it up with Feng next time you see him, it was his plot anyway."

Clover facepalmed. "Can't you keep your ally on a leash?"

"Do I LOOK like a Dog shaman? Feng says you and the girl are made for each other, by the way, at least give her a shot."

With that, he cut the connection and flickered out. For a moment, I thought Clover was going to rip the book apart. "Miserable... insufferable..."

"Drekhead?" Beth offered.

"YES! That, thank-you! You!" Clover pointed right at me. "What was your name again?"

"Naomi," I mumbled.

"Do you have a SIN? Parents? Anything?"

I shook my head nervously. "Just what I've got in the trunk of Beth's sidecar outside," I said.

"Any skills? Studied magic theory at school?"

"Only thing I know about magic I read in your book," I mumbled, "plus stuff I know reading books and watching the trid... also there's... a woman, or something. She whispers to me sometimes and tells me how to do things. I know that sounds crazy. Other than that, I was studying advanced courses on programming and the Matrix and I used to help my Dad run his business after Crash 2.0."

"You don't sound crazy," she told me, her voice softening. "I've got a spare room out back and I could use a hand in the shop. As long as you agree to work and study, I've got a place for you here."

I blinked. "You're offering me an apprenticeship? You don't even know me!"

"No but I know Feng, the tall guy with the Fu Manchu you told me about, has a habit of appearing out of nowhere? That's Feng. He's not just Cheng's Ally, he's a fregging Great Form Spirit of Guidance. Ergo, if Feng says we're a good fit, I'm inclined to believe him. You read my thesis? Did it help?"

"Yes," I answered, nodding enthusiastically, "I didn't know anything about magic but your book... it was like it gave me the edge pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and assembled the frame for me. I've still got huge chinks of the puzzle to fill in but I knew where to start."

"See, we're following the same tradition. Feng knows his stuff."

I gave Vallerie a questioning look. "Stay here," she said, certain of herself, "Clover's a friend, she won't frag you over. Be prepared to work, though."

"Not just at the store and as my apprentice either," Clover added. "You might not have a SIN but I'll be damned if I let a little girl go without a proper education. Also, I'm a magician, I know squat about adepts, so you're going to have to train with someone else too. Lucky for you, I know people that'll take you on."

It was spur of the moment but I trusted Vallerie and I had a good vibe from Clover. The offer was too good to refuse. "Deal," I agreed, "just let me get my bags and say goodbye."

Outside, Beth gave me a hug and her commcode. I promised to e-mail her as soon as I got a commlink. Val hugged me too and told me she'd get my info off Beth so she could link me up to the DA's network. They waited for me to go back inside with my bags before they drove off. Dropping the bags in the back room, Clover was already waiting for me with my first job.

"Back here," she said, punching open a door to reveal an office. At least, it kind of looked like an office under the mounds of plastipaper that were piled on every horizontal surface in the room. "Your first job is to get this lot into some sort of order. And, if you can, scan what I don't have into the tortoise and get that organized. THEN we can get my taxes in order."

I stared at the mess, feeling part of my brain breaking. "You actually use HARDCOPY for this?!?" Looking around, I saw her 'tortoise'. See, before commlinks, there were decks, which were still being phased out now that Matrix 2.0 was well up and running. Decks were expensive, much more so than commlinks, so the average homeowner or wageslave would use a tortoise, an immobile desktop computer. They'd been outmoded back in the 50's but Clover still had one and was obviously using it for her accounts. In hardware years, it was an antique.

"Hey, I get shipments from between Timbucktoo and the middle of nowhere," Clover growled in annoyance. "Places where things like matrix access ain't as important to people as, oh, I don't know, making fire. Be glad they're not handwritten notes on the backs of napkins. You've got four hours 'till closing and you can start again tomorrow, get what you can done, I'll bring you some lunch."

With that, she left me surrounded by paperwork. Some of the piles were taller than I was, which made me afraid to touch anything in case it fell over and buried me. Rather than start on the work right away, I pulled the bag Diabolique had given me next to the coffee table in the kitchen area and unzipped it, wanting to make sure there were no nasty surprises waiting for me.

I was surprised, all right, several times. Fortunately, all of them were good surprises. She'd obviously just thrown a bunch of stuff into the bag and padded it out with Cook's clothes but what was inside made my eyes bug out at the generosity on display. On top of everything was a hardcase for a Walther PB-120 light pistol with a box of ammo and three empty 10-shot clips. Jammed diagonally into the bag was the katana that Cook had used in the fight against the Yakuza thugs in my warehouse. Moving a layer of armoured clothing, I discovered a box full of jewellery. A quick glance into the astral conformed my assumption, both the katana and the jewelry were all magical. As crude as it sounds, particularly considering the age of my current body, I swear I almost creamed myself at the sight of the last item. It was an old, worn, custom commlink sitting in a set of trodes disguised as a baseball cap alongside some AR glasses and a box of chips that didn't have any labels.

Lifting the commlink out of the bag, I held it in awe. The link's casing was armoured, which was a good thing considering the obvious rough use it had seen. Putting on the glasses, I turned it on, hacked the password using an OS exploit I knew about and ran a system diagnostics scan. The specs and components that came back made me giggle in pure delight. Taking the baseball cap out of the bag and putting it on backwards, I zipped the bag back up, dropped my jacket on top, and stormed back into the office to get to work with a vicious grin on my face.

#

>>>>> [LOGIN*#$NETRANGER;username=9Tails;password=**************** *******;ICON=Kitsune Custom 15.6781]<<<<<

>>Welcome, 9Tails, to Netranger. Our records show that you are a new user. Our SysOp will be along shortly to confirm your membership, while you're waiting please read the following rules:

1. Please remain polite and cordial to your fellow users at all times. We're all here for biz, take your personal matters elsewhere.
2. Anyone loading spyware or malware onto the system will be severely punished.
3. Use of attack programs except in self defence will be punished severely.
4. Any user attempting to trace another user's physical location from Netranger will be severely punished.
5. Do not frag with Ned.

>>>>>[9Tails, huh? Fan of old flatvids?]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Er, I like flatvids but I don't think I know the one you're talking about.]<<<<<
- 9Tails

>>>>>[Ancient BBC TV series called New Tricks, look it up. One of the episodes had a hacker that went by 'Kitsune' or 'Nine Tails'.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Well, that makes me blush, I wasn't even aware of it.]<<<<<
- 9Tails

>>>>>[Don't worry, I'm probably the only person in Oz that remembers the show. So, you've read the rules, correct?]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Yes, sir. No intention of fragging with you.]<<<<<
- 9Tails

>>>>>[Don't make promises you won't keep, kid.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Kid?]<<<<<
- 9Tails

>>>>>[Yeah, kid. If I don't know you, nobody else knows you either. That makes you a newbie, ergo a 'kid' 'round these parts. If that's going to be a problem, don't forget your hat on the way out.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[No problem, sir.]<<<<<
- 9Tails

>>>>>[Don't call me sir, dagnabbit, I don't work for a living!]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Sorry, Ned.]<<<<<
- 9Tails

>>>>>[That'll do. So, you managed to scam someone into giving you this commcode and diagnostics says you breezed through the firewall. This is good; it tells me you know what you're doing at least. What I need to know is why you want to be here.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[I'm just another SINless kid with skills and a link. Netranger is a place to talk biz, therefore it's a place I want to be.]<<<<<
- 9Tails

>>>>>[Good answer. What's the most important rule?]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Do not frag with Ned.]<<<<<
- 9Tails

>>>>>[Bingo! We have a winner. Ok, here's the breakdown, kid. I'm giving you a probationary membership. That means I have one eye on you at all times. One infringement, you get dumped. Yes, it only takes one. No, I don't give a frag if it's unfair. Netranger moves periodically, so if you log in and find out that it's missing, you'll have to find it again. No, I don't send out notifications to anyone.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Of course not.]<<<<<
- 9Tails

>>>>>[Good, I hope you keep that attitude. You only get one account; if you try to get multiple accounts I will have you blacklisted. If you have any problems with any of the other users over rules violations, you PM me. If you have any systems issues, bugs, see any ghosts in the machine, you PM Captain Thunderbolt.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Roger that.]<<<<<
- 9Tails

>>>>>[Speaking of which, no porn either. Welcome to Netranger, kid.]<<<<<
- Ned

#

Feeling a tap on my shoulder in my meat body, I logged out and let the physical world come into focus once again. I found myself staring up at Clover, who was holding two garbage bags full of paper in her hands with a pile of them in the corner. The office was practically spotless now, every horizontal space cleared. "What's the meaning of THIS? I told you to organize it, not put it all in the trash!"

"It is all organized," I told her, moving an AR window to where she could take it. "I digitized all the documents, collated them and organized the contents into cross-referenced spreadsheets. While I was at it, I put it all into an accounting program that will basically do your taxes for you. So now you're not going to have to keep any hardcopy around, I can show you how to scan documents in with your commlink... wait, does your commlink have a document scanner?"

Clover crossed her arms over her chest defensively. "I... don't know. Look, how do I know what you've done is kosher?"

"Easy, I'll make a bet with you. Hire an accountant to look over what I've done. If he says I'm dodgy, I'll pay his fee."

"With what money?" Clover asked, raising one eyebrow.

"Mine," I said flatly. "It's not much, hiring the accountant would probably wipe my account. I kept all the paperwork, it's even organized in those bags since I knew you'd want to keep them at least for long enough to check my work."

"And you did all that in two hours?"

"One hour," I corrected, "the rest of the time was spent getting myself a new MSP and contacting some old friends and business aquaintances."

"You're SINless, you can't get yourself a commcode."

I had the decency to look sheepish. "Ok, you caught me. What I meant was, I spoofed my own matrix access."

"That's illegal."

"So is secretly importing awakened reagents from Amazonia," I rebutted with a smile.

Clover's jaw dropped. "How did you...?"

"If you don't want people to know your business, don't let them look at your books!" I admonished. "Don't worry, I buried the transaction and misfiled a few invoices... in the round folder, if you know what I'm saying. For future reference, don't sign for deliveries of that sort of thing yourself, it leaves a datatrail like an incontinent skunk."

"If this is some sort of blackmail...."

I put my hands up. "Woah, no way! Look, I know I've got a sweet deal; I'm just trying to sweeten the deal for you. You have problems keeping your books in order, I solved that problem. Heck, I think I just earned you back around 20K nuyen come tax time. We're both very slightly dodgy. Heck, I'm probably dodgier than you; at least I know I am on paper. I don't give a drek about some crushed butterflies; I hope you'll overlook a little free matrix service on my part."

Clover snorted, blowing a strand of hair out of her face. "All right but there's one thing I want you to be clear about. While you stay with me, you stay clean. KE comes knocking you'll be on your own."

"I expected no less."


The statement in my signature is false.
Re: No Time for Second Chances [message #64239 is a reply to message #62484] Tue, 28 August 2012 17:54 Go to previous messageGo to next message
Dr. Bender is currently offline  Dr. Bender
Messages: 1232
Registered: January 2005
Location: 47°9′S 126°43...
Chapter 8

Clover's home sat conveniently above her store. First thing she did was show me where her safe room was, then the bathrooms and kitchen and finally my room. It was a guest room without any frills but it had a bed and a closet, which was all I really needed. "So, any questions?" she asked at the end of her spiel of ground rules.

"Yeah, do you have a gun cabinet?" I asked, unzipping the bag Diabolique had given me to show her the Walther and accompanying ammo.

She gave me a flat look. "12 year olds don't need guns."

"Hey, I agree, which is why I'm asking if there's a gun cabinet I can keep it in," I lied. Not having a gun was going to give me sleepless nights, I just knew it, which was why Mr. Katana would remain my little secret.

Sighing, she nodded. "In the safe room, I'll open it up for you."

After putting the Walther and ammo away, we had one of those awkward 'new people alone in the same house' moments that seemed to drag before one of the participants can think of something to say. This time, it was me. "Ever since I awakened, I've only had to sleep about three hours a day and only eat one meal a day."

She nodded again. "We'll have to talk to Marvin about that but I know there are some adepts who can subsist on much less than most other people. Notice anything else?"

"A couple of other things," I answered evasively, more because I was curious about something else than deliberately hiding anything. "Who's Marvin?"

"The physical adept friend I was telling you about. He's a free running and martial arts instructor."

Nodding, I did a quick matrix search for 'Marvin free running martial arts Sydney' that came back with no relevant hits. "I take it he's not private," I observed, following her into the kitchen.

"No, he's... less of an instructor, I guess, and more of a courier," she explained, taking a seat at the kitchen table next to her thesis. "He trains locals who ask, gives the ones that make the cut jobs in his courier service. The training includes free running, martial arts for self protection, rock climbing, push bikes, skateboards... basically any method of getting you around that doesn't involve an electric motor."

I stretched before rolling back my sleeve and poking at my nonexistent bicep. "Yep, just what I need. Be nice to get out and see the fragging sun every once in a while."

She raised an eyebrow at me. "Your parents let you curse like that?"

Sitting down, I shook my head. "They don't have much to say about it anymore. Sorry, I've been hanging out with Beth and company the last few days, I'll tone it down."

We shared another long, awkward, silence as the sun rapidly set blow the hills outside. This time I let it rest, waiting for Clover to make the next move. After a few minutes she seemed to make up her mind. "All right, how much do you know about magic?"

"Just the basics you can learn off the trid. I know that magic is the ability to gather and shape mana. I know you have to learn spells from formulae or by learning from a another magician or spirit. I definitely know that some mages have patron or mentor spirits..."

"What does yours identify itself as?" she asked, interrupting me.

"She hasn't formally introduced herself," I answered, blushing a little. "I can tell you she's quite... uh... sexualized."

Clover raised one eyebrow but didn't say anything for a time. Reaching out, she tapped her fingernails on the cover of her book. "You said you read some of my thesis, did you find it insightful?"

"It wasn't like anything I've read before," I said cautiously. "Or at least, I've never read anything that placed such an emphasis on taking what you want. Some of the core ideas appealed to me but they bring up a lot of unfortunate implications and, well, I think much of the philosophy is open to abuse."

She nodded slowly. "I can see where you're coming from. Out of curiosity, what part did you sympathize with?"

"Power as a means of achieving freedom," I answered immediately. "I grew up in a corporate apartment block, attended a corporate school, attended corporate-sponsored recreational activities and lived my life around a corporate schedule. When my life suddenly changed, I realized that it's not just the people on the lower rungs that are trapped. No matter how high you climb in an organization, you're never free to claim your own agency. Even with wealth, most of the things that wealth can claim for you will just sit idly by and eventually wither as you wait to find a use for them. What I want isn't something I can get by climbing the greasy pole or hording everything away like a dragon... I just can't put a name to what it is."

Suddenly standing the moment I'd finished, she beckoned to me over her shoulder as she walked away, carrying her thesis under one arm. Hopping to my feet, I had to run with my smaller legs to catch up to her. She led me downstairs again, past the shop and into the basement level. "Don't bother with that door," she ordered, pointing at a thick metal bulkhead as we walked past, "that's the storeroom. Don't think just because I know jack about computers doesn't mean the people I hire don't know their stuff."

Beyond that door, she stopped in front of a blank wall. Waving her hand through the air, I blinked as I saw the wall fade before my eyes, revealing another bulkhead. "Wicked," I complimented, genuinely impressed.

Clover snorted. "Just an illusion, nothing to get excited about," she grunted. She had to use her maglock passkey and pass a full biometric scan before the door opened for her. Stepping to one side, she let me enter first.

The room beyond was magical, quite literally. There was an altar draped with red cloth upon which sat unlit candles, a chalice, a spotless ceremonial dagger, a bowl of water and a tall onyx statue of a naked woman who writhed sensuously while enveloped in demonic mist while carved snakes dripped from her skin like water droplets. On the wall to my right was an old tapestry depicting a fanged woman with many arms holding swords that stood triumphantly over the body of a blue man, surrounded by blood and eviscerated limbs; the style definitely Indian. To my left was an ivory statue of a tall, raven-haired, woman wearing a cloak of black feathers. The statue was stained with real dry blood with animal bones littered at her feet. Beyond the altar were various magical workstations that looked to have some use in alchemy and metalworking; the walls lined with bookshelves full of tomes, each probably worth a small fortune by themselves. I felt another of those electric buzzing sensations across my skin as I stepped inside.

"My lodge," Clover informed as she followed behind me, "this is where I meditate, study and work in both enchantment and ritual magic. It is my innermost sanctum, the place I retreat to in times of crisis. You see the three goddesses that I take as aspects of my spirit mentor to which I identify with the most: Morrigan, Lilith and Kali. Formal magical theory classifies her as the 'Dark Goddess', the embodiment of primal fertility that is both generative and destructive. In Australia, you can feel her hand in the forest fires that sweep the land, clearing the way for new growth. Most gaze upon her and only see the blood and darkness she revels in, not the guiding light of hope that she offers through the darkness. Those who stray from our path do so because they lose sight of the fact that it is the world around us that is dark, not our destination."

"Our path?" I asked, not knowing what to think.

"Black magic," she explained, "is a magical tradition like that of hermetic mages and shamanistic practices, though rarer. It emphasizes that the act of magic is a pure expression of the will of man imposed upon the world. It is a gift from the divine, the means of unlocking the ultimate freedom unrestrained by the will of others. This doesn't give us any 'inalienable rights', I personally don't believe anyone has a right to rulership though I accept the natural law of prudence in the face of the powerful. Hermetics look at magic and see a path to knowledge; shamans perceive magic as part of a natural order. Black magicians see magic as the fulfilment of their desires but there's no rule that says a black magician must desire evil. In fact, that way is a different, twisted, path."

"I guess I think it seems like it's a slippery slope," I countered. "What right do I have to fulfil my whims? At what point does exercising power become abuse of power?"

"I'm not advocating reckless use of power, far from it, every action's consequences must be considered and choices always have to be made. Consider this then, black magic is the only tradition that acknowledges the danger of power at all. Hermetics often do terrible things in the pursuit of their 'scientific method' and are responsible for unleashing cybermantic techniques on the world, the effects of which on the astral plane still aren't fully understood. Shamans seek strength in balance to uphold the natural order and yet in pursuing this goals they fall to toxic magic and blood magic. Power is dangerous to both the wielder and all those around them, no matter the source. We are all vulnerable to the darker parts of our psyche but eschewing power and denying the dangers is even more reckless. The black magician accepts the responsibility of power alongside the perks, if they don't they are no longer true members of the tradition."

She left me scratching my head in the silence that followed. "Ok, I honestly don't have a rebuttal to that. But you're saying I'm already on this 'path'? I don't remember signing up."

"A tradition isn't a magical group. It's more of a classification of like-minded practitioners, a loose collective that follow a similar philosophy. Sometimes information is shared or bartered and when we start to bunch together, we generally like to be around like-minded people just like everyone else. I'm not selling you 'life on black magic', I'm guiding you on the path you're already on. Feng could see it and now I can see it. You might not follow the Dark Goddess but you feel sympathy for what you see and hear, else you'd be running for the hills right about now. I'll admit, the décor is a bit spooky."

I laughed, needing to lighten the mood. "So... yeah... I... I guess what you're saying is making sense to me. I mean I totally grok that balance of responsibility and power angle but how does anyone trust themselves with this sort of power? I mean... people can die and not just from flinging a combat spell. Hell, I can make people feel emotions that aren't theirs. So far I've only used my powers on people who were trying to hurt me but... what happens when using a spell is just convenient?"

Sitting down at the base of her altar, Clover patted the step beside her in invitation. Accepting, I sat there and waited for what she was going to say next. "Nobody can tell you how or when to use your magic," she said, "and that's the point of the black magic tradition. Nobody SHOULD tell you what you can and can't do. Not me, not anyone else, not society at large, not the spirits; just YOU. And that's a good thing. I don't know about you but if I had a choice between relying on the morality of an organization over that of a single person, I'd bet on the single person nine times out of ten. Deep down, nearly everyone wants to be a better person and it's easier to let that out without the influence of others."

"Essentially, have some faith in yourself."

"Just so."

#

>>ADMIN PASSWORD=*******************;CMD*/CREATEOBJECT/PRIVATE CHATROOM/TEMP/BKGCHK/9Tails;ADDUSERS: Morork, Sgt. Pain, VV.

>>>>>[Thank you all for coming.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Hoi.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>>[Honoured.]<<<<<
- Sgt. Pain

>>>>>[emote=curious;What's this about?]<<<<<
- VV

>>>>>[As you're all aware, I do background checks on new members to make sure they're on the up and up. Alternately, if you're not aware, you are now. We have a mutual acquaintance that I've just given access under the name '9Tails'. Sources indicate IRL she goes by the name 'Naomi'.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Kid wants to be a runner? Cute but we really letting the door open to drekhead tweens now?]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>>[Come on, Morork, you know how finding Netranger works. I thought someone might have let her in but no, when I backtracked her code she hacked her way through fair and square. Now, I would have just done the cursory check I give most new members and let the chips fall after that but I noticed something that needs to be discussed. Her fingerprints reminded me of someone, so I played my hunch and it was on the money. She codes in a similar manner to Nathan McArthur. Are any of you aware of a connection between him and the tyke?]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[No.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>>[News to me.]<<<<<
- Sgt. Pain

>>>>>[VV?]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Sorry, thinking. She never said she knew a Nathan McArthur, never gave names to the bits of her past she told me about. I think she told me enough of the truth and omitted a lot but that's just smart, I'd do the same thing in her shoes. She mentioned she helped her father in business dealing and that he disappeared 'a few weeks ago'. Could be Nathan had a lover nobody knew about.]<<<<<
- VV

>>>>>[If he taught her to code, that would explain why their fingerprints are so similar.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Except she's not half-Caucasian.]<<<<<
- Sgt. Pain

>>>>>[Is that really a thing in this day and age? Couple hundred nuyen will give you a biological child of whatever colour you want in utero.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>>[McArthur was a Shiawase citizen all his life, you hear weirder crap about what non-Japanese employees do to themselves in that company.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[What do you expect from a Japanacorp?]<<<<<
- Sgt. Pain

>>>>>[Wait, why are you even asking us about this Ned? Can't you just trace her back to wherever she came from before she appeared at the Museum of Fire?]<<<<<
- VV

>>>>>[Interesting fact #1. 'Naomi' doesn't exist in any database and believe me, I searched thoroughly. She has no SIN, no records at all, not even a hit on image recognition software, which means she's never used public transport or even passed by a curious marketing drone. Essentially, she popped into existence in the middle of the wilderness just to save Sarge's ass. Normally I'd assume she was a free spirit of some kind, messing with us. Evidence says otherwise.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Such as?]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>>[Come on, Morork, you met her. Do spirits act like that?]<<<<<
- VV

>>>>>[I have no idea, do you? Nevermind, that was a rhetorical question. Free spirits do what they want and mess with who they want.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>>[But they don't leave traces of DNA. Not unless they're a merged spirit like the bugs, I checked this with Magelight already. Now, I think she's a bit world-wise for her age but hell, I was the same way. Every street kid is. Except she can't have grown up on the streets, unless...]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Unless someone's erased her past.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>>[Precisely, someone or something good enough not to leave any trace of itself in the process. I can also confirm that she's not biologically related to Nathan McArthur, not that I'm implying that they can't have a father/daughter relationship.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[Why would anyone that talented want to wipe Naomi from the 'trix? She's just a kid. Heck, you must know most of the people who could do that, Ned.]<<<<<
- VV

>>>>>[I did ask around discretely, everyone on my list said no. That doesn't mean much, I don't have every drek hot decker in the world on speed dial and most of them would lie about it anyway. I'm not discounting the involvement of a pet AI either.]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[emote=shudders;Please don't say that! I still have nightmares about Deus.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>>[When we picked her up she was covered in dirt and wearing nothing but a hospital gown. No little plastic bracelet like you'd expect if she was a patient somewhere though.]<<<<<
- Sgt. Pain

>>>>>[She claimed to have been put in a cell somewhere and fed. If she was found and taken by Shiawase or the Yakuza as leverage over McArthur, it could explain his sudden death.]<<<<<
- VV

>>>>>[Not sure I'm completely buying the father/daughter connection, honestly. Why would a corp accountant stick his neck out for a little girl if they weren't blood?]<<<<<
- Ned

>>>>>[.... Meet her in the flesh sometime, mate.]<<<<<
- Sgt. Pain

>>>>>[Seconded.]<<<<<
- VV

>>>>>[I concur. Little bitch is going to tear men's hearts out of their chest and eat them when she grows up.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>>[Morork, you've been hanging around Ned for too long.]<<<<<
- Sgt. Pain

>>>>>[Hardy har-har.]<<<<<
- Ned

#

Waking fresh in the wee hours of the morning after yet another three hour sleep cycle, I turned on the light and grabbed Clover's thesis from where I'd left it on the cupboard shelf, returning to snuggle under the covers with the book open across my crossed legs to read. The first few pages left me staring in blank astonishment, not because of the content but the speed at which I was able to read it. Three hundred and sixty pages and ten minutes later, I'd finished the whole tome with full comprehension. I even tested myself by checking out the small coffee stain on page two hundred and thirty one.

Wanting to test myself further, I grabbed my commlink and the baseball cap 'trodes and logged onto the matrix to look for some free books. I immediately discovered that I could not only read one book at frankly ludicrous speeds, I could partake of several books at the same time while retaining full comprehension. Frankly, it even scared me.

Not wanting to deal with the implications, I logged onto Netranger and found the newbie magic room. I'd spent an hour or so customizing my icon to look like an impossibly beautiful late-teens Japanese idoru with long white hair and nine glowing tails wearing a red yukata decorated with black orchids. The room itself looked like a cross between a cozy hobbit hole from Lord of the Rings, a viking lodge and a wizard's laboratory. I had to admire Ned's code too, the room was amazingly realistic, even the magical elements were believable enough to immerse yourself in the setting.

The same couldn't be said for the icon sitting at one of the glowing round tables of translucent purple force sipping a virtual soda. The 20-something feminine form was slightly blocky and suffered from the occasional texture tearing when she moved. I recognized the model from an old VRMMO that was popular in the late 40's and early 50's, re-skinned, of an archetypical impossibly buxom sorceress in a skimpy robe with a hood and a plethora of runes everywhere. She had several wands sheathed in leather holsters strapped to her thighs. A quick query told me that the user the icon represented called herself 'Two Wands Blazing', a surprisingly Amerindian alias for a non-shamanic icon.

"Hi," I greeted, sitting opposite her at the table while I sent an order for a virtual jasmine tea. The pot and cup popped into existence nearby and floated gently down onto the table.

Glowing yellow eyes glared at me from under her hood. "Nice icon," she complimented with a scowl.

"If you'd rather be alone, just say the word," I offered, putting my hands palm down on the table like I was ready to get up again.

Draining her soda in one gulp, she slammed it down on the table, where it immediately re-filled itself. "Are you a real girl? 'Cause right now, all I want to do is bitch about boys and if I find out you're a fraggin' wolf in sheep's clothing I swear I'll turn you inside out like an octopus!"

That made me wince, I had to stop myself from launching into a tirade about sex vs. gender. Luckily I didn't have to lie to her, even if what I had to say was a technical truth. "Hundred percent RL girl here, vent away."

And vent she did. You've heard the tirade before, you'll probably hear it again, so I'll spare you the details. Blah, blah, blah, all men are pigs, blah, blah, blah, I swear I'd be better off as a lesbian, blah, blah, blah, why don't they just listen, blah, blah, blah. I had Two Wands pegged as a teenager two minutes into the conversation. I listened patiently and waited for her to exhaust herself before saying anything.

"So, what did your boyfriend actually do?" I asked.

She pouted. "He wasn't my boyfriend, it wasn't like we'd dated more than once even. But I thought we might have something, y'know? We got along. But then he gets all freekin' moral on me! Neeeyar, you're too young for me to date, neeeyar, you should be looking for someone your own age, neeeyar!"

Translation: she got dumped hard by a guy who didn't know how young she was and was still old school enough to avoid any piece of tail under sixteen. "Was he a runner?"

She nodded. "Comes to these boards too, lucky he doesn't know my username. I don't know if it was Original or Magelight that tipped him of but I am going to rip whoever was responsible a new asshole when I find out!"

"Wow," I said, unwilling to take sides, "I didn't think a runner would give a crap between all the murdering, B&E, theft...."

"I know, right? Stupid drekbrain, it's not like it was my first time even."

"I take it you liked this guy?" I surmised.

The grumpy look she gave me told me I'd hit too close to the mark. "No, I hate him! He's infuriating!"

Just then, the door opened and a tall, bearded, wizard icon cribbed from several 'Gandalf' style wizard icons stepped into the room. He at least looked realistic, though his incidental animations weren't up to snuff. Upon seeing him, Two Wands immediately lost it, jumping up from the table and drawing one of her wands. "YOU!" she yelled, pointing her wand as it sparked dangerously.

I reacted, partly because I liked Two Wands enough that I didn't want Ned to have to take matters into his own hands and partly because I wasn't sure if she really was going to fire. Luckily, my link had come with a non-lethal 'slowdown' attack program that would essentially lock her icon into immobility, so I blindsided her with it, hitting her icon with a blast of icy wind that covered her in a layer of icicles. As it turns out, she had less of a firewall and more of a fireopengate with welcome mat. Frozen solid, the VR physics engone took over as her icon overbalanced and toppled over, hitting the ground with a 'clink'.

"Um, thanks," the icon, which my query told me was 'Magelight', thanked warily. "You know what that was about?"

"Something about someone telling someone else that she was younger than she said," I explained.

He winced, looking down at the stiff form of Two Wands' icon. "Ouch, wasn't me. Sorry, Wands, that really sucks."

Naturally, Ned beamed in a moment later like he had his own teleportation device. His icon was ultra realistic, depicting a black armoured form that looked like someone had cut a clean hole in reality, except where there should have been eyes peeking out from the visor slot you could actually see the background behind him. Before he could say a word, I put my hands up. "Self defence! Or, rather, I defended Magelight here, Two Wands was about to hit him with something. She was a bit distraught."

"I vouch for that, Ned," Magelight said, stepping up to bat for me.

Grunting, Ned thawed Two Wands out with a flick of his finger. She glared at me as she picked herself up off the floor. If her icon could blush, it probably would have been. "Sorry, Ned," she apologized sheepishly.

Ned shook his empty helmet. "Wands, what am I going to do with you?" he asked in a metallic voice like he was speaking through a tin can telephone.

Her icon was capable of giving him the goo-goo eyes, as it turns out. "Let me off with a warning if I promise to be a good girl?" she asked hopefully.

"Nice try. Actually, I've got some pro-bono work on my desk at the moment that would be right up your alley..."

"WHAT?!?" she exclaimed. "I don't work for free, old man!"

"You're about to break your rule," he said sternly. It's amazing how intimidating an empty 2D helmet can be in the hands of a skilled animator. "I'm sending you the details via PM, you've got 48 hours or we take this to the next level." Reaching out, he held out what looked like an old school coach ticket from the 18th century. Growling, she snatched it out of his hands. "Good choice," Ned congratulated before turning to me. "Thanks for heading this one off at the pass, 9Tails, just don't make a habit of doing my job for me."

I beamed. Praise from Caesar. He teleported away again without another word, leaving me to confront Two Wands' accusatory glare alone. "See if I have your back, sister," she grumbled at me.

"I DID," I insisted. "If you'd hit Magelight with whatever you were about to do, Ned would have seriously fragged you up."

"She's right, kid," Magelight agreed with a patient sigh. "She just saved your narrow ass. Besides, you would have had egg all over your face when it came out I had nothing to fragging do with Praetor finding out how old you really are. I doubt Original did either, it's not like either of us give two dreks about your love life. You want to figure out who fragged you, look at people closer to home."

Slumping in her chair, she crossed her legs and propped her chin up with the heel of her palm. "I don't want to think about that. I trust all those people."

"And that's your first mistake," he quipped cynically. Turning to me, he looked my icon over. "Nice icon," he complimented.

I curtseyed. "Thanks. Most of the work was done for me but I was able to do a bit of customization yesterday. I know it's not terribly original but sometimes the classics are the best, y'know?"

He nodded. "Well, I owe you one. I'm Magelight, one of the resident experts and the welcome wagon for new awakened visitors. I handle the hermetic/western side of the magical divide, you'll see a user called Original about who handles the native/shamanic side. Lemme guess, you're Clover's new apprentice."

That surprised me. "How'd you know that?"

He laughed. "News travels fast, the running community in Sydney is small and rather insular. Newbies get noticed, particularly when they ride into Castle Hill with one of the Desolation Angels after fending off a ghoul army with fire elementals. Most of us were either at Lucas Heights or Paramatta at the time."

The mention of Lucas Heights was even more of a shock, I hadn't even thought about it. "The reactor? Oh, spirits, did it get hit by the earthquake?"

He shook his head. "I'll give the Japanacorps this, they can build to fraggin' last. The QVB took some minor structural damage the heritage organizations are chucking a fit over but everything that went up post-awakening is intact. Nah, a group of toxics made a play to take over the facility, just about every spellslinger in town showed up to deal. I take it if you're apprenticing to Clover, you're practicing black magic? Don't get me wrong, I don't give a drek, but you're not going to win friends and influence people around here like that."

I shrugged. "As long as I get the job done, who gives a frag?"

"You'd be surprised," he sighed, taking a seat and motioning for me to sit back down as well, which I did. "Just look at Praetor and Two Wands here. The Sydney Council lowered the age of consent to thirteen at the behest of the Japanacorps anyway, not that half the population west of Paramatta ever gave a crap about it anyway. Not that I'm interested."

Two Wands snorted. "In your dreams."

He sighed and rolled his eyes theatrically. "It's always the pretty boys like Praetor who ruin life for the rest of us. Back on topic, I've met assassins who would gladly put two in your chest while eating take-away and wouldn't lose a lick of sleep over it who turn around and balk at the strangest things. I knew a razorboy once that peeled a corpsec good like a grape without a second thought then balled his eyes out busting a cap in some flesh form insect spirits. People are fragging insane."

"Mind if we talk biz for a moment?" I asked politely.

He raised his eyebrow at me. "Biz?"

Reaching into the sleeves of my yukata, I pulled out a couple of business card style icons that represented datapackets containing my commcode and e-mail address. "My contact details, it's a secure, encrypted, LTG drop box so feel free. Before I awakened, I was studying advanced matrix courses, so I can offer some hacking services and matrix consulting at more than reasonable rates. I'm also a mystic adept, apparently, but I know I wouldn't trust me with those sorts of jobs yet."

We all traded e-cards and bulldreked about ourselves for a bit before I was able to get down to what I really wanted. "Either of you know where I can score some free spell formulae?" I inquired. "I just need something that's not going to get me arrested practicing with it."

"Oh, I've got something!" Two Wands said, clicking her fingers so that the virtual representation of a book made out of gold appeared in her hands. "Open source beauty and fashion spells. Nothing major but good for practice. Healthy Glow, Fashion, Fix, Glue, Makeover and Reinforce."

"Reinforce?" Magelight asked with some surprise. "What's a spell like Reinforce doing in there?"

She rolled her eyes. "Men! Do you have any idea how easy it is to put a hole in gauze? Or snap a high heel kicking a pervert in the balls?"

"Trade you," I offered, plopping a glowing red cube on the table. "Open source firewall, better than the one you currently have installed. WAY better."

Her eyes narrowed. "Yeah and probably full of back doors and viruses," she said, suspicious.

Rolling my eyes, I opened a command console using the runes at the edge of the table and asked the system's automated processes to scan and evaluate my offering. After a few moments, a tag appeared on the firewall icon with a picture of Ned giving a thumbs up next to the words 'Ned Approved'. We traded copies and I scanned her file with my own anti-virus software before stuffing it into the impossibly copious space in my sleeves. "I'm also on the lookout for invisibility and illusion spells if either of you can swing it."

Magelight chuckled cynically. "You'll have to ante up real nuyen for that stuff, sweetie. What I can do is introduce you to a talislegger that can get what you want for the right price, no questions asked."

"Talislegger? Like a talismonger?"

"Talisleggers are black market magical goods dealers," he explained, "talismongers are legit, or act like it."

"What's the catch?"

"Smart kid. Giving you a commcode's no skin off my nose but I reckon I'm doing you a bit of a favour passing it along. Favour for a favour, scan?"

"What do you want me to do?"

"Nothing yet. But if I need your help with something, I'll call in the chip. Deal?"

"Deal," I agreed, holding my hand out to accept his e-card.

We socialized for a while before I noticed the time at 06:00, said my excuses and logged out. Grabbing Clover's thesis and throwing on a pair of track pants, I emerged from my room to find her in the kitchen wearing a fluffy white bathrobe and her hair up in a towel. "Morning," she greeted, "sleep well?"

"Well enough," I answered, putting the book down on the table. "I finished this, by the way."

Her eyebrows shot up. "You finished the whole thing in one night?"

"I definitely need more background on the metaphysical stuff," I told her. "I went hunting for some books on it but the good stuff is expensive. I didn't really get the bit about transitional mana phases and planar interactions in astral shallows. Aura interactions and astral sight was quite enlightening though, explained a lot to me."

"Another adept ability?"

"That'd be my guess," I answered, surmising correctly that her question was directed towards my suddenly amazing ability to speed read.

"Well, Marvin's dropping by this morning to take a look at you. I'm a little concerned that your abilities are more social and mental rather than physical, however."

"No, it's cool, I need and exercise and diet plan," I insisted, not about to let my new body go to waste for one moment. "By the say, do you think you could show me how to read spell formulae? I managed to get a good trade on a few open source utility spells."

And that's what we spent out time doing over breakfast. After finishing up, I went and had a shower and got dressed in some more casual attire. It was fairly warm so I put on a t-shirt, some armoured red cargo pants that clenched around my ankles and a light grey sleeveless armoured jacket with a high collar along with my sneakers, just in case Marvin wanted to put me to the test. The pants also came with a nice belt I could clip my commlink to, so I accessorized with the baseball cap trodes and perched the AR glasses on my forehead. Walking out again, I heard voices downstairs so I hopped down the staircase into the store.

Marvin was hard to miss from Clover's description of his profession. He was wearing an orange and white Urban Explorer jumpsuit with a red company logo that read 'Street Legal courier services' under a stylized shoeprint, from which I assumed that Street Legal was the name of his company. He was around five foot ten, black hair, with a lantern jaw and a lean, well toned, body. Smiling at me, he waved. "Hi, you must be Naomi," he greeted in that tone adults get when they're talking to children.

"And you would be Marvin," I replied in the same tone, "say hello to Marvin, everybody!"

He winced. "Ok, ouch, you as quick on your feet as you are with your tongue?"

"I doubt it," I answered with a shrug. "I can't remember the last time I was able to exercise properly." It was the truth, I couldn't actually ever remember exercising when I was Nathan. Poor self image does that.

"Well, maybe we can fix that," he said with a serious nod. "Clover here tells me you're a mystic adept, mostly mental tricks, speed reading, that sort of thing?"

I nodded. "And I don't need very much food or sleep, at least so far."

"Cool," he said, not trying to sound hip or speak down to me at all. He just seemed to be one of those guys who throws in words like 'cool' and 'awesome' to keep them alive. "Here's my deal. Street Legal runs a training gym just down the street from here that's free for under sixteens with the talent. If you make the cut, there's work available in being a courier, even if you're SINless. We offer courses in rock climbing, martial arts, gymnastics, swimming and a lot of other things but you'll be working alongside paying customers and adults, they have priority. You'll still be charged for food and drink, especially water."

Snorting, I shook my head. "So my next question is: at what point are you going to start expecting me carry contraband for you? Or is the courier service a cover and you just pimp us out?"

He blinked. "Wow, you ARE blunt, aren't you? Naomi, I'm not running a racket here, I don't need to. There's big money in personal training all across North Sydney and my gym's well in the black. But you want to know where the biggest money is in training? Adepts. Anyone with a lick of talent, SINless or SINner, can walk into my dojo and get the same deal. When they finish the course, if they want, I can put them in contact with a corp recruiter and earn a finder's fee. Or, I've got plenty of other contacts that need skilled adepts as well as my own employment roster. Now, I'll admit, some of the locals who train at my gym are members of gangs but they pay nuyen and they know to leave their drek outside the door. Any of my couriers get arrested with contraband and they know what they're carrying, I cut them loose."

Considering his pitch, he seemed sincere but I was catching an undertone of something hinky he wasn't telling me about. Much like Clover ran a legit talismonger... but, oh, there was that little matter of importing illegal reagents once or twice. Please ignore the man behind the curtain.

"Well, ok, I'm willing to put you on probation, see if we're a good fit. Shake on it," I said, offering my hand ingenuously. His eyes and delighted smile told me he thought I was being cute as he shook my hand.

Sucker.


The statement in my signature is false.
Re: No Time for Second Chances [message #65035 is a reply to message #62484] Mon, 10 September 2012 05:53 Go to previous messageGo to next message
Dr. Bender is currently offline  Dr. Bender
Messages: 1232
Registered: January 2005
Location: 47°9′S 126°43...
Chapter 9

A black Ford Americar sat cold and quiet in the darkness on the shoulder of New Showground Road, dwarfed by the high rise apartments that loomed over it on either side. Even in the Sydney metropolis, there were occasional stretches of deserted road in the early hours of the morning that seemed to be part of another planet, far away from life as we know it. Riding shotgun, Dark Shadow shifted uncomfortably in his seat, trying to adjust the katana strapped to his back so that the sheathe would stop digging into his spine. His AR mirror shades blackened everything beyond the glass but what was caught under the glow of the street lamps while helpfully projecting the time and date stamp in the lower right hand corner of his vision. It read '05:47, November 5th, 2067'.

"You can take the katana off, you know," Raven commented from the back seat.

Turning to look over his shoulder, he flashed a scowl in her general direction before turning back and scowling out at the road. "Where's the fraggin' truck? Shoulda been here a quarter hour ago."

>>>>>[The postal service is late, who'd 'a thunk?]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

Dark Shadow gave Steel Machine's meat body, lying limp in the driver's seat where it was jacked into the car, an especially intense glare. Then he realized that his compatriots couldn't see him glaring behind his mirror shades, so he turned his attention back to the road, which he could barely see. Minutes ticked over like days as he squinted into the darkness.

"There it is!" Raven shouted in excitement from where she was peeking out the back window.

"Where?" Dark Shadow asked, unable to make anything out in the gloom through his tinted shades.

>>>>>[I've got it.]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

The Americar's ignition turned over, seemingly of its own accord. Unfortunately, the aging engine wasn't as sprightly as it once was, particularly in the bitter cold with dew forming on the grass outside. "Um, Nigel, it's coming pretty fast," Raven observed.

>>>>>[MY NAME IS STEEL MACHINE, DAMN IT! I'M TRYING!]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

Raven harrumphed, unimpressed. "You know, they make a pill for ignition issues."

The car finally came to life just as the red GAZ Willys Nomad van with Sydney Post and Wuxing logos painted all over it powered by, spraying water across the windscreen. The Americar's wheels span as Steel Machine gunned the engine, pulling out onto the road and kicking it into high gear. Unfortunately, for all the smoke and noise, the Nomad continued to pull away from them.

"What the fragging drek?!? Put your foot down, dude!" Dark Shadow shouted at Steel Machine.

>>>>>[HEY! This isn't a Westwind, a'right? Pedal's to the metal!]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

"It's ok! He's slowing down for a red light!" Raven pointed out.

>>>>>[Drek!]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

Pulling up beside the postal van in the right hand lane, Steel Machine came to a halt at the red light. "Um, dude? What the frag are you doing?" Dark Shadow inquired.

>>>>>[You want to pay for the ticket?]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

"Mate, the car's registered under a fake SIN!"

>>>>>[Oh... right, yeah, I knew that, I mean... um...]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

"I think he means he doesn't want the car linked to a traffic infringement moments before we commit a hijacking," Raven suggested.

>>>>>[YES! That's exactly what I meant! Fragging amateur.]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

Dark Shadow glared at him. "Hey, unless you want me putting cigarettes out on your bare skin while you can't do jack shit, I suggest you shut the frag up!"

Raven pointed through the windscreen to get their attention. "Guys! Green light!"

Steel Machine put his foot down again, throwing Raven back into her seat. Luckily, the postal van opted for much slower acceleration, allowing them to pull in front of it. Picking up the remote control for the car's secret caltrop deployment system, Dark Shadow grinned evilly as he turned to watch his handiwork in action through the back windscreen. "Adios, motherfragger," he snarled as he pushed the button.

There was a loud clunk from the boot of the car. Other than that, nothing happened. Continuing to press the button repeatedly without any measurable result, Dark Shadow growled in frustration before he started thrashing about, kicking the floorboards and dash in impotent rage.

>>>>>[Don't do that!]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

Raven sighed. "I didn't expect ignition problems from you too, Shadow."

"I'M GOING TO RIP SPARKY'S TESTICLES OUT THROUGH HIS EYESOCKETS!" Dark Shadow swore, punching the side door. Whipping out his Colt Manhunter, he turned to Steel Machine's meat bod. "Get this fraggin' car alongside, I'll shoot out the fraggin' tires!"

>>>>>[Ok, ok, sheesh....]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

Pulling back into the right hand lane, the Nomad put on the power and surged past them. Dark Shadow hit the electric window and waited for it to roll down before leaning out of the cabin so that he could rest his heavy pistol against the side view mirror in a right handed grip, his glowing purple Mohawk swaying in the wind. The gun went off, making a sound like a cannon in the quiet night, but the bullet didn't find its mark. Two more shots also failed to shred even one tyre.

"Drek, drek, drek, drek, drek, drek!" Dark Shadow swore profusely as he pulled back into the cabin. Reaching into his pocket, he took out a small wallet full of skillsofts. "Sorry, my bad, I forgot to load the firearms soft! Just gimme a second...."

>>>>>[WHAT THE JESUS FRAGGING CHRIST ON A POPSICLE STICK! IT'S GETTING AWAY, MAN!]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

"I know! I know! Chill, dude!" the street samurai said, trying to placate his friend as he ejected the martial arts skillsoft from the port in his skull and tried to find the one labelled 'firearms' at the same time.

"Maybe this is a bad idea," Raven suggested, "we should abort this clusterfrag."

>>>>>[FRAG THAT! BUCKLE UP!]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

"Um, Nigel, I don't think that..."

>>>>>[DON'T CALL ME NIGEL!]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

The Americar's engine whined like a whipped puppy as Steel Machine put his foot down again. The wheel span hard left as the car lurched forward, barely managing to tap the Nomad's rearmost wheel, bounding off the heavier vehicle and spinning out of control. Skillsofts sprayed in all directions as Dark Shadow lurched forward before being shoved back into the seat as the car screeched to a halt, the katana sending a wave of pain through his back as he landed on it hard. Dazed from the sudden jolt, Raven looked on in amazement as the Nomad slowly decelerated and pulled off safely on the side of the road with its warning lights on, showing only a small scratch on the chassis from the impact.

"Well," Raven observed groggily, her head still spinning, "we stopped it; somehow."

"Fraggin' aces," Dark Shadow growled, pain obvious in his voice as he kicked the passenger door open.

>>>>>[I said don't do that!]<<<<<
- Steel Machine

Trying to get out of the car, every movement sending shooting pain down his back, Dark Shadow was halfway there when he suddenly hit something and fell back into the seat. Trying again had the same effect. Reaching out, he probed the air in front of him with his hand. "Guys... I think there's a magic wall in front of me or something, it's stopping me from getting out of the car."

Raven groaned. "No, the hilt of the katana keeps hitting the roof of the car when you try to get out, moron!"

Looking up, Dark Shadow noted that she was right, the pommel stuck out over his head where it could catch on the curved lip of the roof. "Shut up," he growled, blushing profusely as he yanked the hilt to one side, finally getting out of the car and rising shakily to his feet. He couldn't see drek in the darkness but he managed to wander towards the Nomad's lights, his hands trembling as he inserted a new skillsoft into the port in the back of his head with one hand while pointing the Manhunter at the cabin door with the other. The red dot laser sight shone like a beacon off the polished bodywork, guiding him ahead. "Right, anyone in there, I'm giving you to the count of..."

"Good morning, citizen," a robotic voice interrupted him in greeting, coming from an external speaker built into the driver's side door, "we seem to have had a minor collision. Do you require medical assistance?"

"Shut up!" he ordered. "I'm giving you to the count of three or..."

"I'm sorry, I don't understand your request," the pleasantly reasonable voice interrupted again. "If you require medical assistance, can I recommend DocWagon™ emergency ambulance and health insurance services? Their quality and efficient staff are ready to serve all your emergency health care needs with a press of a panicbutton! Do you have an insurance number?"

"That's it, smart ass," Dark Shadow growled, aiming carefully for the door handle before putting thee bullets into the mechanism.

The electronic voice squeaked and squealed for a moment before continuing. "Unnecessary malicious damage to company property has been noted. A distress call is currently being placed to Knight Errant."

"Frag!" Dark Shadow swore again, grabbing at the ruined handle and yanking on the door to no avail. It was locked tight.

"Would you like to be included in the emergency call?" the voice asked politely.

Throwing his hands in the air, he looked up at the stars in askance before answering. "Sure, why not?"

The speakers made several beeping sounds as the call was transferred. "Thank you for calling Knight Errant, your emergency call is important to us, please hold the line," a pleasant, if tinny, female voice implored before switching to synthesized recording of 'Greensleeves'.

Dark Shadow just stood there and stared for several moments, dumbfounded.

"Allow me," Raven said when she finally arrived, pushing him to one side as she gave an exasperated sigh. Tapping a few commands into her AR keyboard, the door popped open in a matter of seconds with the music still playing in the background. Dark Shadow blinked when he saw that the cabin was empty. "Drek, did the driver get away?"

Rolling her eyes, Raven hopped up into the cabin. "Most of these delivery vans are run by remote control. The drone in the back unloads the gear, all we have to do is reprogram the route... and voila!" The speaker crackled before going silent and the back door of the van popped open.

"Ok, that's impressive," Dark Shadow complimented, holding his hand up to help her down.

Scowling, she slapped it aside. "Do I look like I need help?" she snapped, jumping out. Unfortunately, the road was slick and her sneakers didn't have quite enough grip, sliding out from under her. Her butt hit the ground with a small splash.

Shaking his head, Dark Shadow just walked away, intent on getting his share of the loot. "Whatever, flat chest."

"HEY! What happened to chivalry?"

"You just killed it," he snapped. "Come on; help me load the fraggin' car."

An hour later, the Americar rolled into a discreet garage down a back alley, the engine mewling under the strain as the doors bulged with packages. The boot had been tied into place, several items that were really too large for the cargo space jammed in by brute force. Sparky the mechanic stared at the damage in horror from where he stood near the stairway, absently rubbing grease stains onto his overalls. "What the hell did you do to my car?" he demanded, mashing the button to close the door far too hard.

The doors opened and smaller packages tumbled out, spilling across the floor like water. "What 'chu talkin' about your car?" Steel Machine argued as he pulled himself out of the cabin. "Co-owners, remember partner?"

Sparky just knelt next to the front left bumper which was hanging loosely from the chassis where a large dent in the bodywork had broken it loose. "Oh god, my poor baby, what did they do to you?"

Kicking several packages out of the way, Dark Shadow whooped, his attempt at jumping out of the cramped cabin blunted by agonizing back pain. He did manage to limp enthusiastically out of the car, however. "YES! Is anyone else here wired? I'm so totally wired right now! That was awesome!"

"Yeah, fraggin' wonderful," Raven grumbled as she crawled awkwardly out over the sea of packages onto the floor. Finally finding a clear space, she rolled over onto her back, pulled out a cigarette and searched her pockets for a lighter. Her red synthleather jacket and black jeans were still wet from falling into the puddle on the road. Her commlink was clipped securely to her belt; fingerless AR gloves and invisible AR contacts providing functionality since she didn't have a datajack. Fashion aside, Raven was a petite young woman with short curly red hair, freckles and an 'I don't give a frag' attitude.

"Well?" Dark Shadow looked down at her, grinning like a schoolboy. "Go on, call the buyer! We've got a meet to set up so we can unload all this drek! Payday, people!"

"Buyer?" Raven asked, looking at him strangely. "I don't have a buyer, I thought you had an inside man?"

Blinking, Dark Shadow stared at her. "What? I didn't have a buyer, I thought you..."

As realization dawned, they both turned to look at Steel Machine. "What?" he asked with a shrug. "Don't look at me, this was your idea."

Allowing her head to flop back onto the floor, Raven gave up her search for a lighter, stared up at the ceiling and allowed the cigarette to fall limply from her mouth. "Drek," she swore, summing up the entirety of her feelings in one word.

#

It was a perfect morning for sleeping in. The air was cool but I was warm snuggled under the covers. I luxuriated in the sensation of my own smooth, soft, skin against clean fabric as I drifted in and out of consciousness. But I wasn't alone, she was there with me in both worlds, nuzzling, kissing, caressing every inch of my body, driving me to the brink but never allowing me to slip over the edge.

My eyes finally fluttered open when the alarm roused me at 07:00, the insistent buzzing forcing me to wake. Moaning, it took several attempts at mashing the off button on the device to get the hellish clamour to stop. Ignoring the burning need in my loins and the tingling sensation that played across my skin, I swung my legs out of bed, miscalculated and accidently hit my heel hard on the floor. Cursing like a pirate, I took a moment to rub it until the pain subsided.

Apparently I was in 'that awkward phase', or so the 'adults' called it. Truth was I'd had another growth spurt, over the last year I'd grown four inches and most of that had gone into my legs. Being an adolescent clutz was just another of the curve balls life was throwing at me along with phantom muscle pain, 'girl problems' and sudden inescapable urges to hug cute things. Ok, the last one was a lie but there were days when I wished I had cramps just to give me an excuse to be bitchy.

Hauling my ass out of bed, I stretched before moving onto the exercise mat for my morning workout. Tai Chi improved my grace and balance while Yoga promoted fitness and flexibility. As a bonus, I found both helped with my growing pains and calmed my mood. With that done, I moved on to sit-ups, push-ups and lifting small weights in a variety of poses to work various muscle groups. It was working too, over the last year I'd gained a fair amount of muscle definition despite the adolescent process of 'filling out'. I was also glad for anything that distracted me from my hormone-driven cravings.

Bouncing lightly to my feet, I checked to make sure nobody was in the hallway before creeping into the bathroom. Call me image conscious but sweat sodden pyjamas isn't exactly a good look. Besides, Clover was always crabby on Saturday mornings before she got her hot chocolate and the last thing I needed was my chores doubled because I was walking funny or some such excuse. My teacher was definitely old school when it came to both apprenticeships and raising 'children'. Part of the reason I was so crabby all the time was how infuriatingly amused everyone was when I insisted that I was grown up enough for things, no matter how much I did to prove it.

Closing the bathroom door behind me, I stripped out of my pyjamas before taking stock of myself in the mirror. Things were changing. My face had lost a little bit of the pre-teen cuteness factor, helped by the fact that during my last visit to Reggie he'd re-styled my hair to a more adult chin-length look, returning my hair to its natural black colour with a few red highlights. Even though I was in a strange lanky phase, it was obvious I was growing hips even as my cup size steadily increased. Best and worst of all, I was frighteningly hot for an elf girl my age; even I thought that my green almond eyes were killers. It occurred to me that I was the sort of girl that fathers lock away in high towers to await rescue by handsome princes. Lucky for me, Clover really didn't fit the evil stepmother archetype.

Shaking myself out of my introspective reverie, I started my morning routine by casting my Healthy Glow spell and watched as my sweat evaporated, my teeth brightened and the flush of good health otherwise spread throughout my body. The effect wasn't just cosmetic; one casting of Healthy Glow was like spending a week at a health resort. One casting a day meant that I was healthy as a body could be and at the very least, it was doing wonders for my skin.

Technically, I didn't need to shower after casting Healthy Glow, but I did have a quick one anyway. Partly for pleasure, partly to help me wake up, partly to get my hair wet to help brush it out but mostly to teach myself the things a young girl should know about hygiene and beauty products. It occasionally came up in conversation and I got weird looks from other girls when I gave them blank looks on the subject. The last thing I wanted to do was stand out even more than I already did. Not to mention fashion and beauty tips are kinda fun when you get into it.

Feeling much better when I returned to my bedroom, I dumped my pyjamas into a hamper of dirty laundry and set about getting ready for the day. I could have used magic to make the routine easier with a Makeover spell that would do my nails, style my hair and even apply make up but again, I felt that I needed to learn to do these things manually. Not that make up was actually part of my routine; in general I found that it just got in the way, particularly at the gym.

For clothes, I started with a stretchy dark grey 'second skin' bodysuit with short sleeves and legs. Designed as a woman's undergarment for sports, it held everything in place, provided protection in the form of armoured plates as well as in case of the aforementioned 'girl problems', helped with circulation by applying light pressure to my waistline, allowed my skin to breathe and even recycled my sweat into drinkable water, not that I was brave enough to take advantage of that feature. Last but not least, it flattered my figure, which is always important.

Over the second skin went a sleeveless black midriff armoured hoodie and a set of cargo red pants that were clinched at the ankles for ease of movement. A fresh pair of white socks went on underneath my red and black running shoes which in turn matched my fingerless athletic gloves. I hid my blue and black elastic bracelet underneath the strap of the right glove, buckled a second belt loosely around my hips as a purely cosmetic feature, combed my hair back and held it in place with the AR glasses resting on my forehead, shouldered on the sash bag that carried my commlink and draped a set of headphones around my neck where they'd be easily slipped on if needed.

All of that was done by nine o'clock, when I skipped lightly out my bedroom door and into the kitchen. There I found Clover nursing her morning hot chocolate, looking the worse for wear after spending the night out clubbing. She was wearing a fluffy white bathrobe with a towel around her head, obviously not long out of the shower. "Morning," I greeted pleasantly, flicking the stove on to start preparing breakfast for us both.

"Happy birthday," she grumbled, trying to whip up some enthusiasm.

What she said didn't register with my brain. "I'm sorry?"

"I said: happy birthday," she said louder and slower, like she was forcing her lips to move correctly. "I was going to give you a present but the post is late."

"Birthday?" I asked stupidly, staring at her.

"It's November fifth, dummy," she admonished, flicking my nose. "What, are you the only kid in the world who's not excited about her birthday?"

Squeaking in surprise, I grabbed my nose just when what she was saying finally penetrated. My birthday, or rather Kimiko's birthday, as was formerly written on the wall in the virtual Shiawase shrine was November fifth. I was officially thirteen, which meant....

My train of thought was cut off when Clover flashed a wicked grin at me. "Sweet thirteen," she teased, "now you can cut a swathe through all those boys panting over those pointy ears."

I blushed furiously. The age of consent in Australia was sixteen in most parts of the country. After Sydney seceded and threw their lot in with Shiawase, Renraku and several other Japanese corporations, the Corporate Advisory Board had advised several amendments to the law that made Sydney more of a home away from home to the Japanacorps. Thus, Sydney's age of consent matched Japan's at thirteen, technically. In practice, cultural mores don't change that much in a few decades; the drop in statutory rape cases accompanied an increase in violent assault as concerned fathers took matters into their own hands. However, it did simplify the legal system in certain areas where teenage pregnancy was more normal as well as mitigating the high death rate as the city struggled to cope with the mana storms and it's not like the corps give a shit about social problems as long as a steady stream of indentured labour marches into the factories.

"Great," I grumbled, throwing some bacon onto the grill, "now I have a bullseye painted on my chest as half the city calls hunting season."

"You know, for someone who follows Seductress, you're remarkably straight laced."

"No, I'm not," I denied. "I have no problem with sex, heck if I want some I have a Human Form spell and a fake SIN. It's not sex I have a problem with, it's being followed around by horny bastards looking to get their leg over."

"Try to look less like a living sex doll then," she quipped.

I rolled my eyes at her. "I wish... well, ok, not really. You going to open the shop today?"

She shook her head. "Already put the sign up. Our shipment hasn't arrived either, I'll probably be spending most of the day trying to find out what the hell's going on."

"Ugh," I commiserated, continuing to cook while I talked. "That's annoying... wait, you got me a present?"

"Yeah, it was strange, I started looking around and the next thing I know, Ching calls me out of the blue offering to do me a good deal on a piece. That guy even gives ME the creeps, y'know, and I practice animal sacrifice. Anyway, it was supposed to come in today with the shipment, so I've got two reasons to chew out these postal assholes."

Honestly, I was kind of flattered and didn't know what to say. Instead, I leant over the counter and gave her a kiss on the cheek, blushing profusely. "Um... thanks, Clover, for the thought."

She scowled at me. "You can thank me by finishing your homework on time."

Sighing, I rolled my eyes again. "Yes ma'am."

We were in the middle of devouring breakfast when the doorbell rang. Being the apprentice, and fully dressed, I was the one who had to interrupt my feast to answer it. There were two access points to the house over Clover's shop, through the shop itself and a stairway that ran up the side for visitors. I swear, our 'front door' was more secure than the vault downstairs. There were three locks on the steel reinforced inner door, which opened up so you could get to the security door with the clear bulletproof screen that was so thick you needed an intercom to talk to the person on the other side. Usually I found it annoying but today I was glad it was there when I found Ricky Hand grinning at me through the glass.

Ricky Hand was an admirer of mine turned creepy stalker, which might have been less scary if he wasn't a Red Pole in the Red Dragon triad. I'd met him on a trip to the mall, he'd noticed me shopping and made a point of introducing himself, even bragging about what he referred to as his accomplishments. That's how I knew that Hand wasn't his real second name. I didn't need the people on Netranger to warn me he wasn't just spinning tails, he'd actually showed me one of his hands. They were just cybernetic but he wore them on a belt underneath his jacket at all times, torn from the arms of razorboys and gillettes that had crossed him.

Physically, he didn't look like much. I was only as tall as his shoulders and I had a lot of growing still to do but he was stocky and broad shouldered. Like a lot of triads, particularly Red Dragon, he was Han Chinese and proud enough that he refused to lose his Hong Kong accent which didn't earn him many Australian friends. If you really want to piss Australians off, try holding yourself above us, that'll do it right quick. Ricky was arrogant enough that he didn't give a drek. He was also handsome and considered himself a ladies man, though I imagined he earned his companionship more through fear than he did affection. Today he was dressed in thick leather with a heavy jacket composed mainly of straps and rivets with heavy steel-toed boots. Hints of the tattoos on his body could be seen peeking up through his neckline.

I flicked on the intercom and folded my arms across my chest. "Ricky, what the frag are you doing here?" I demanded in fluent Han, learned through a night course over the last year. I knew a bit of Mandarin too but I was still studying.

"Hoi, babe," he greeted cheerfully with a drek-eating grin as his eyes roamed down my body. "Yo, happy birthday! Why don't I take you out to party tonight to celebrate; take a ride on my special rocket?"

My flat expression didn't change. I was proud of myself, after the dreams last night I was actually tempted. Something about big muscles and the whole bad boy thing made him easy on the eyes, he could probably get twice as much pussy if he could keep his mouth shut. "No. How the frag did you know it's my birthday anyway?"

"Word gets around... well, that and shipping manifests. Speaking of which, get Clover's ass over here, we need to talk. Believe it or not, I'm here to kiss it... honestly, I'm sort of looking forward to it."

Ignoring his leer, I backed away a few steps before turning to stick my head into the kitchen. "Clover? Ricky Hand's here to kiss your ass, apparently."

Clover's hooves clicked on the tiled floor as she stormed up to the door, scowling. "What?" she demanded curtly. She was actually a bit taller than him and managed to be scary even in a bathrobe. Looking like a demon helps, I guess; having a reputation as an 'evil black mage' probably does too.

"Uh, hi Clover," he greeted, suddenly losing the attitude. "I'm sorry but today's shipment's been stolen. Uncle Yi sends his deepest apologies and wants you to rest assured that we're looking into it."

"WHAT?" she shouted, punching the glass hard enough to make it reverberate for a few seconds. Both Ricky and I jumped and edged away, even though Ricky was safe enough behind the security door. "I went with Sydney Post so that people like you would insure me against drek like this!"

He hung his head in apology. "I know, as I said we are working towards a speedy solution. If luck favours us, your goods will be returned to you along with Naomi's present."

She glared at him. "Get the frag off my doorstep."

Kowtowing once, he turned to leave.

"Oh and Ricky?" she called after him in Han, making him pause mid-step. "Stay the fuck away from Naomi!"

Turning on his heel, he smirked at her before hopping down the stairs.

"Frag," Clover swore after slamming the door shut and resetting the locks. "You're going to have to watch out for that bastard now."

"Mr. Obsessed Creepy Stalker Triad Rapist?" I asked innocently. "Who'd have thought?"

"I'm not joking, not even a little bit," she snapped, grabbing my arm and locking her gaze on mine, "you scan?"

"Me and him?" I asked incredulously, letting my horror at the thought show on my face. "Maybe if he took me ice skating in hell."

She let go and nodded, convinced. "Good, just watch yourself. Followers of Seductress have a tendency to... get carried away with the moment. The spirits don't see things like humans do, they're more primal and don't care for our notions of what's proper and what's not. You'd be wise to remember that."

"What about the Dark Goddess?" I asked as we returned to our breakfast. "You know, baiting Ricky Hand wasn't the smartest thing."

"I can handle him," she insisted, spearing her eggs like she was digging the fork into his head. "If the Red Dragon frags with me, the Green Gang will come for blood and it'll be war between the triads. They don't want that, particularly with the Grass Sandals and the Yakuza waiting for someone to slip up. Anyway, don't you worry about that, you better finish up and get that bony ass of yours over to Marvin's."

My hands strayed to my butt self-consciously but I didn't make a big deal out of it. After saying my goodbyes, I grabbed my skateboard from the lobby and slipped out through the back of the store just in case Ricky was waiting in ambush out front. I breathed a sigh of relief when I got a block away without spotting him, which was a good indicator that he wasn't around. He wasn't exactly skilled when it came to shadowing, just persistent and stubborn beyond all reason.

Marvin's was only a few streets away. The gym complex took up half the block, including indoor and outdoor pools. There was also a sauna, a health spa, acupuncture, rock climbing, obstacle courses and even a Zen garden on the roof. Locals lapped up Marvin's mind, body and soul approach to fitness, even though half of it was pure bulldrek. Much like Clover, Ill Ching and every other talismonger in the business that sold charms and trinkets to gullible mundanes, Marvin traded off his reputation as a physical adept to gull the average citizen into believing he knew the secrets to health and fitness. Not that I begrudged him his fortune, along the way he actually helped people get fit and healthy and gave jobs back to the community. Street Legal Couriers was as much advertising for the gym as it was a courier company; the sight of freerunners dashing about Castle Hill was enough to draw in curious clientele.

Kicking up the skateboard and grabbing it in one move without breaking stride, I went through the front doors, waved to the receptionist on the way past and stepped into the girl's locker room to stash my skateboard before heading to class. The indoor obstacle course was a sight to behold in itself, composed mostly of large concrete blocks with a variety of surface textures, hand rails, pipes and common street obstacles designed to simulate the outside world. The most challenging obstacle was the twenty meter high glass wall that mimicked the front of a modern building. Only and handful of Marvin's couriers could even attempt it, much less get to the ledge at the top and back down. Down was supposedly much harder.

The moment I stepped into the small courtyard in the middle of the course, two familiar boys immediately skipped up to me, one grinning uncontrollably while the other frowned far too seriously.

"Hey, Naomi!" Ace greeted with his trademark cheerful enthusiasm, practically bouncing off the walls. His tousled sandy hair, which he didn't wash often enough, still managed to emphasize the bounce in his step. He wore a yellow jumpsuit with red and black lightning bolts down the arms and legs with white running shoes and blue gloves, showing a lack of concern for colour coordination. AR sunglasses hung on a slender plastic chain around his neck, he had an issue with things touching his pointy elven ears. He also had lovely bright blue eyes that were probably going to slay the girls when he grew up a bit more.

Ace contrasted well with his constant friend and companion, Solomon. Human, chestnut haired, brown-eyed, possibly a hint of Asian or African in his ancestry, Solomon was taller and lankier than both of us. He wore thick-rimmed black glasses that were prescription as well as AR enabled, kept his hair high and tight and dressed conservatively in an armoured blue tracksuit with extra padding in the elbows and knees. He kept his peace, giving me a short nod and a wave.

Walking behind them, the last of the trio was the perpetually sour and cynical Erica, who merely took the time to glare at me like I'd caused her a personal affront. She was the sort of girl who they coined the term 'fiery redhead' for. She put a lot of work into straightening out her hair and hiding her freckles under an overly thick layer of make up. She wore a blue-black leotard with orange neon lines running in 'technocratic' patterns with urban digital camo style capris with orange sneakers, shin pads and gloves. Instead of glasses, she opted for AR contacts with little skulls where her pupils should be, showing off her cybergoth tendencies. While the boys kept their comlinks discretely tucked away in a pocket, her outfit (like most female clothes) lacked pockets. Instead, she opted for a commlink styled into a bracer that fit over her left forearm complete with gratuitous blinking lights and purely aesthetic AR readouts. She was also the sort of girl that exercise made stockier and broad shouldered, which she compensated for by wearing her hair in a shoulder length feminine bob.

The others were milling about either in small groups or by themselves. Kelly Quist, a cheerful, tanned, seventeen year old brunette in a white jumpsuit, stood off to one side, stretching her legs by placing her heel against a wall high over her head and bending her torso forward. Neil, an ork that appeared to be the same age as Kelly (meaning he was about half her age in real years) stared at her discretely as he half paid attention to a conversation between Elmo Soze and Oded and Amanda Penn. Elmo was our resident elder, one of those guys who was still fighting trim at 52. Oded and Amanda had met at the gym and ended up married. Diligence, our teacher and a dwarf, was busy lecturing Vivian, the troll and his young son Thomas, probably giving them pointers for the class ahead. Diligence was his street name, of course, one well earned and nearly legendary in the local dwarf community but his real name, Uther Blake, was just as awesome at least in my opinion.

"Hoi, chummers," I greeted in return, kicking my heels against the floor to make sure my shoes were on tight. "Ready for a workout?"

"Are YOU ready?" Erica asked huffily, folding her arms over her chest as she glared at me in challenge.

"I think so," I answered with a pleasant smile, ignoring her tone along with the daggers those icy blue eyes were casting in my direction. Internally, I hoped she'd get sodomized with a broken bottle.

Diligence didn't mess about when he called for everyone's attention. From a standing start, he jumped up to a platform six feet above his starting position like he had springs in his heels, stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled like a drill sergeant. "Right, I hope you're all warmed up for this," he barked, rubbing his hands together in sadistic glee. "I think you're all ready to kick it up a notch. The game is tag only this time we've got a twist. Scattered throughout the course are padded blue sticks of different sizes. You can only tag each other with those padded sticks. When someone is tagged, they get a ten second time out... oh and your AR goggles will show you where everyone else is at any time, so don't count on a stealthy approach. Get running, game starts in 5... 4... 3..."

We scattered like ants caught in the rain. As it happened, Erica and I jumped for the closest wall at the same time, trying to gain higher ground. To give her credit, she was a better jumper and had more upper body strength than I did, though she was slower to get on her feet and running again than I was. Spotting one of the padded blue sticks ahead, I didn't hesitate, hopping over a railing onto a balance beam, hardly slowing down as I traversed the gap. Most of the others had me licked when it came to main strength, even 10 year old Thomas thanks to his dwarven metagenes, but none of them could match my sense of balance and sureness of footing.

Grabbing the stick off the ground on the high platform, I whirled about to take stock of where everyone else was on the course, particularly Erica. Pausing almost got me tagged when Erica thrust a long staff up at me from below. Fast reflexes saved me as I battered the weapon aside with my own sword-length stick and leapt the four foot gap to the next platform, giving myself some space to break into a run. I didn't have to look back to know that Erica was in pursuit, there was no way she was going to let this shot at taking me down a peg get away from her. All I had to do was figure some way to turn her to my advantage.

Vaulting a waist high concrete barrier on the raised pathway I was on, I spotted Thomas across the other side of the course ambushing Vivian from above. Smart kid had gotten a hold of another polearm like Erica's and was doing run-by attacks on the taller classmates from the upper levels. The Penns had teamed up to defend against Kelly and Elmo, who were trying to take any opportunity to get at someone's back. Luckily, I'd wound up running away from the chaos, too far for any of the older students to take advantage.

Pure intuition made me duck and roll when Erica jumped up, kicked off a wall and rebounded up onto my platform, swinging her staff where my chest would have been. I felt the wake of its passage ruffle my hair before coming to my feet and blocking her backhanded blow with both hands firmly on the hilt of the practice sword. Even through the padding, the strength of the blow numbed my hands. Spinning with the momentum, I forced her to dodge a swing of my own that would have hit her chin if she hadn't swayed backwards just in time. This gave me some distance, which was good and bad. Good in that it gave me another moment to form a plan and bad because she had the reach advantage.

Losing patience, Erica charged, thrusting forward with the staff held wide in an attempt to overbear and simple bull her way through me. Bending back, I planted both hands on the platform and performed a backflip, kicking her weapon up into the air and nearly out of her grip. Her momentum carried her forward as I landed on my feet, allowing my knees to buckle as I fell into a crouch. From there, my kendo training kicked in and I executed two swift horizontal strikes to her abdomen. In AR vision, she flashed red, indicating she was in a time out.

"For frag's sake!" Erica growled in frustration.

"Erica!" Diligence snapped from across the room. "Watch the language!"

"Yes, sir," she acknowledged sullenly as she stalked away.

I didn't wait around to watch her altercation with sensei, I was off and running before the first word even came out of her mouth. Dropping down to the lower level, and theoretically out of sight, I followed the AR markers on my HUD to see if I could take someone unawares. Turning a corner just in time to see Vivian barrelling down a long corridor towards me, our eyes widened when we both realized that we were on a collision course. While their was no stopping the momentum, I dropped into a slide, hoping to pass between the troll's legs. Vivian caught on immediately and jumped, lifting both legs high into the air. My practice sword met his short, thick, padded club as both of us took the opportunity to take a swipe on our way past but the blows cancelled each other out. Continuing to run in opposite directions, we shared a quick grin with each other over our shoulders as a kind of salute.

Solomon came out of nowhere a moment later, leaping out from a side corridor, slashing with a practice sword similar to mine once before kicking off the wall opposite to deliver a second slash at my head. I barely parried the first blow and was forced to narrowly duck the second. "Christ, Sol," I swore, taking a petulant and ineffective swipe at him in return, "you could've taken my head off!"

"Go on a date with me and I'll let you score a touch," he offered.

Solomon had been practicing Kendo and other martial arts a lot longer than I had, ever since he was eight in fact. Five years experience versus one showed as we traded blows. With every slash, he gained a step forward while I was forced back the way I'd come. He was relentless, coming at me from every direction, handling the sword with nonchalant ease. Unlike his usual serious expression, he was grinning at me knowingly, thinking he was about to use my pride to bait me into a concession.

"Well, gee, let me think," I said, pretending to consider his proposal seriously for a moment before suddenly dropping onto all fours.

Erica had a lot going for her. Unfortunately, sneaking wasn't one of her fortes. Screaming as she came around the corner, running up the wall to help change direction, her wild swing at me smacked directly into Solomon's chest. She ran straight into him a moment later and the two of them landed together in a heap.

"Gotcha!" Ace shouted as he leapt down from the platform above. That was his big mistake. I rapped him on the wrist with the practice sword hard enough that his dagger-sized implement fell from his numb hand. "OW!" he protested, hopping about as he flashed red in AR.

Erica screamed in fury as she sprung to her feet, brandishing her staff. "Right! You and me, bitch, one on one! This is a formal challenge, I'm going to kick your bony ass here and no...." She stopped in mid sentence when the tip of my sword tapped her on the breastbone, making her immediately flash red. I watched her face turn red with anger until it boiled over. "I WASN'T DONE TALKING!!!"

"If you're going to hit someone, hit them," I snapped, "don't stand there talking about it!" To prove the point, I tapped Solomon on the ankle the moment he stopped flashing red before he even had a chance to take a swipe at me.

Still flashing red, Erica screamed again and let fly, sweeping the staff up in a sudden savage blow. I dodged away from it by reflex, rolling across the floor, but the padded pole flew over my head and struck Ace directly on the chin, knocking him flat. Realizing what she'd done before he'd even hit the ground, Erica dropped her weapon and managed to catch him before he hit his head on the concrete. "Oh my god! I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"

Ace just groaned, his bell still ringing as his eyes rolled around in their sockets. A sharp whistle pierced the air and all sound ceased. Diligence landed on his feet right next to Erica, kneeling to check on Ace. After a moment, he shook his head. "It'll bruise but he'll be fine. Solomon, get off your ass and find Vivan or Elmo to help you get him to the infirmary, ok? Erica, Naomi, put your weapons back on the rack and follow me."

"Yes, sensei," I muttered, weathering Erica's glare as we walked over to put our practice weapons back in place. Diligence led us away from the obstacle course, up a set of stairs to one of the lower terraces that had been converted into a Zen garden with a small dojo off to one side. It wasn't as grand as the upper garden but it was private and relaxing, even if the serene pool of water was only an AR construct rather than real liquid.

"Sit," sensei ordered, dropping into full lotus as easily as other people might cross their legs. "Erica... what? Just what?"

Erica pointed a finger at me. "She hit me in the middle of my challenge! It wasn't fair!"

Diligence sat in silence for a moment, as if he expected me to add something. When I didn't, Erica seemed to falter a little, unsure whether she should say more or keep her mouth shut. "Was it a legal hit?" he finally asked her.

Her jaw clenched and unclenched for several moments before she flopped back onto her heels, arms falling limply into her lap. "Yes, sensei," she admitted.

"This isn't some stupid Kung Fu sim, kid," he told her evenly, scratching his short beard, "you don't get to give soliloquies before facing off with your nemesis. Now Ace has to pay for your lack of control. Do you have anything to say to that?"

Shame-faced, Erica looked at the ground and shook her head.

"Well, you might want to start with an apology to Ace. But before that, we need to resolve this thing between the both of you. Naomi, what's your problem with Erica?"

I shrugged. "I don't have a problem with her," I answered honestly. "She's a strong fighter, she's more experienced than I am and I respect her enough not to hold back. My only issue with her is that she often behaves like a brat."

"BRAT?!?" Erica shouted, scowling.

"Erica, remain silent and breathe," Diligence ordered sternly. "When you think you can talk without being angry, what's your problem with Naomi?"

"She's... infuriating," she said after a few moments, her pause editing out the swear word she wanted to use. "She hasn't been here a year but she prances about like she owns the course and everyone falls over themselves to be on her side. It's not fair! I worked hard to get here!"

"Yes, you did," Diligence acknowledged in soothing tones. "Naomi, which of the two of you would describe as the better woman in the arena?"

"Simpai Erica," I answered. It hurt my pride to admit it but it was the simple truth. If anything, Erica was even more shocked. "She's more skilled than I am."

"Bulldrek!" Erica snapped, forgetting herself. "You made monkeys out of all of us, don't be so smugly superior and pretending to be all humble in front of him!"

"Erica," I sighed, "all I've got is talent. When it comes to technique, I suck. Solomon and Ace got caught out acting like idiots because... well, they were behaving like idiots. Vivian let me go because he knew I was good bait, I can't take him on if he corners me but we created one heck of a distraction, he probably would have jumped Solomon and Ace if he'd had a chance. I had to run to keep you off balance because sword to staff, I know I haven't got a snowball's chance in hell going toe to toe with you. Yes, I was deliberately baiting you, so really Ace getting hit is as much my fault as it was yours."

"I wouldn't go quite that far," Diligence sighed. "I also wouldn't say your technique 'sucks' but you do have a long way to go. I want you both to consider something else too. Erica, you are a physical adept, Naomi here is a mystic adept. Not only that but those adept powers Naomi has mastered are all of the mind and the heart rather than the body. Despite your massive advantages against her, Erica, you still lost. Naomi acknowledges her weaknesses because she's matured much faster than any girl I've ever met. What weakness do you have that let her win?"

"She's sneakier," Erica growled.

"True observation," Diligence admitted, "but that wasn't my question. This isn't about her, it's about you. I watched you that whole time, you were out for Naomi's blood. That made you careless. Now, I think all three of us know that you're jealous of Naomi. Can you admit that?"

There was a long pause as Erica considered the question. "Yes, sensei," she answered curtly. I found myself letting out a nervous breath that I didn't know I was holding in.

Diligence beamed. "Excellent! Congratulations, Erica, it's a rare person that can admit that to themselves, let alone in front of others. However, I can't have you girls disrupting class like that, so this rivalry has to be placed into perspective so here's what we're going to do. I'm going to leave you both here to sort out your differences for the rest of the morning. When I come back, you'll either be ready to work with each other or I'm dropping you from the class."

Erica's eyes bugged out of her head. I couldn't help but wince. "B-b-b-b-b..." Erica stammered, unable to compose a proper sentence.

"Well, if that's all, I'll leave you girls to it," he said with a grin, hopping lightly to his feet and strolling nonchalantly back through the door. The moment he was gone, Erica jumped to her feet and started to pace, glaring at me out of the corner of her eye. "I just want to get one thing straight between us: I don't like you. You put on airs and prance around like a goddamn queen, like you're so much better than the rest of us! The boy may fall over themselves for you, just don't expect me to put up with your drek!"

Sighing, I stood up. "Look, I'm not trying to put on airs..."

"Oh, shut the hell up!"

"...when you try to provoke me, I ignore you because it's not worth the time and stress of getting into an argument. I'm not sure how I can say it any plainer than I already have: you're the better fighter than me! It'd be stupid to mix it up with you, you're stronger and I've only been at this a year!"

"Bulldrek," she accused, poking me in the collarbone and getting in my face, "you took on me and Solmon and Ace and came out on top. I had reach, you say I have strength and sure you got me on a sucker play but if I was that much better than you I should still have been able to block it. The only thing that disgusts me more than a cocky bitch is a cocky bitch that plays the victim."

I knew what I had to do and what I had to say but internally the idea made me grimace. "You need me to prove to you that you're better? Fine, straight up fight, here and now, first knockdown takes it all. No tricks."

She glared at me. "You'll throw the match."

I scowled in exasperation. "I don't know HOW to throw a match! Look, you want to make extra special sure? Handicap yourself. Turn around, close your eyes and... hell, don't use your hands or something."

"If this is a trick..."

"If this is a trick, I'll match downstairs and quit.

After glaring at me for a while longer, she slowly closed her eyes, turned around and folded her arms across her chest.

Bracing myself, I considered my options. I really wasn't brave enough to get in close to her. Heck, I wasn't brave enough to take her on without a weapon in the first place. Steeling myself for the inevitable pain that would follow, I set myself and executed a perfect and silent back spin kick aimed for her kidneys.

Next think I knew, I was kissing the pavement. Erica had her legs wrapped around my shin in a scissor lock and probably could have broken my knee if she wanted to. As it was, I just writhed and bashed the ground with my palm, desperately tapping for a timeout. "Uncle! Uncle! Uncle! You win, you can stop now!"

She looked a little stunned but finally got the message and let go, allowing me to flop loose and roll onto my back. Reaching down, I rubbed my knee where she'd twisted it, probing it to see if it needed a healing spell. "You ok?" Erica asked me tentatively.

"I'll live," I sighed. Grabbing her forearm, I held it up next to mine to make a point. I'd grown stronger over the last year and developed some muscle but next to hers, my arm looked like a twig. "See? You're way stronger than me. I'm a bit better with a sword but not that much, if I hadn't taken a cheap shot there's no way I would have hit you, senpai."

She blinked at my use of the honorific. Rolling over and springing to her feet, she leant over and offered her hand to help me up. Wordlessly, I took it and let her pull me to my feet. For a frozen moment, we stood, holding hands, staring at each other, a sudden gust of wind tugging our hair. Blinking again, Erica let go of my hand and smiled at me. "If you want, I could show you some moves?" she asked tentatively.

I smiled back. "I'd like that."

#

The fire red Honda-GM 3220 ZX Turbo rolled to a halt outside the garage, the engine's deep rumble sputtering as it died. The driver's door opened and a pair of long, luscious, legs swung out of the cabin, carefully placing two light blue-grey high heels down between a puddle of unnameable liquid and a small pile of refuse. A curvaceous body with an almost impossibly thin waistline followed, clad in a Zoe one piece skirt suit that matched her shoes. Shaking out her golden locks, she cringed at the repugnant smell that filled he air before remembering to hold her rebreather over her delicate nose and large, pouty, lips. Slamming the door behind her, she stalked over to the side door and bashed the only part of it that wasn't covered in rust.

Raven opened the door for her immediately, smiling as she reached out to embrace the taller woman. "Hey, Madeline," she greeted, all but batting her eyelashes as she fished for a kiss.

Madeline put her free hand in the way, blocking her. "Ewww, Raven. You're covered in dry mud and... god knows what else."

Raven looked down at herself and blushed. "Oh, uh, yeah, I fell in a puddle. It's a long story, come on in."

Stepping inside, Madeline deigned to lean far over so Raven could give her a kiss on the cheek before she continued on. What she saw made her stop and stare. Dark Shadow and Steel Machine sat in the remains of shipping boxes, open letters and what had once been the contents. Shadow was holding something in his hand that was hard to describe but it seemed to be made of green plastic and springs. Steel Machine was holding what looked like a doll, still in its box. Sparky was wiping his oily hands on an oilier rag as he considered a dented bumper bar sitting on his workbench, though he spared Madeline a shy glance.

Not caring about the smell anymore, Madeline lowered her mask and shook her head. "What the frag is all this?"

"We hit Sydney Post," Dark Shadow explained proudly, holding up the thing in his hand. "Look at this drek! I have NO idea what it is! It's probably some... secret corporate experiment! Yeah, must be."

"What are you, nine?" Raven asked with a scowl, slamming the door shut and throwing the bolt. "It's just some stupid garden ornament or toy or something."

He snorted in disbelief. "Come on, who'd want something this ugly on their lawn?"

"QUIET!" Madeline shouted, shocking everyone into stillness. The air itself seemed to get heavy with tension as the blonde made an effort to calm herself. "All right," she said with forced evenness, "one of you please explain to me why you hijacked the post. Please?"

"Uh... well last night," Dark Shadow began slowly, "after work... we went to the pub. Nigel and I had some drinks..."

"Machine! My name is Steel Machine, damn it!"

"...but it was only one or two, I swear! Anyway, the pub's just across from the post office and I said to Machine here, didn't I? I said there must be a bunch of stuff worth something in those vans if someone's willing to pay for it to be moved from A to B. The more we thought about it, the better the idea sounded...."

"I thought you were insane," Raven interrupted.

"YOU were the one that said you knew a fence!"

"I bloody well did not you cheeky bugger!"

"PLEASE?" Madleine interjected, stopping the argument before it could make her headache worse. "So you get a bright idea. Hijack a postal van bring everything back here and then what?"

"Hey, it wasn't easy," Shadow protested," we were waiting for one of those vans to roll past all bloody night! SOMEONE... that shall remain nameless... said they knew a fence. We don't quite know who. But as it turns out, nobody knows a fence. So we thought we'd see what we were dealing with, I mean someone out there has to want some of this crap, right?"

Steel Machine held up the doll in the clear plastic box he was holding. "Who the hell stocks, much less buys, a 'My First Voodoo Doll' set? It even says it's a fucking educational toy, right here! 'Start your pre-awakened child on the path of the Loa and teach them the basics of sympathetic magic today!' There's a whole box of these drekky things!"

"Talismongers, duh," Raven said, rolling her eyes. "There's boxes and boxes of the same sort of tourist crap. Hell, there's even some of those 'finding the elven soul' chips in all this lot. Wonder if they ever get anyone off the street asking for books on finding the orkish soul?"

"We can just thank all our lucky stars none of you idiots knew a fence," Madeline snarled. "This crap, and I mean ALL this crap, is totally fucking worthless."

"Awww, come on, don't be like that," Shadow whined. "You're in retail, right Mad? You must have contacts, you've gotta get your goods from somewhere!"

Madeline raised her eyebrow at him. "Yeah, I get my goods from somewhere: fragging corporate suppliers! The LEGAL kind! The only kind you can sell at retail because the contracts say nothing goes out the door without a fragging RFID tag. Ok, ok, I'm sure there are some dodgy retailers but FYI no, I don't know a fence, I can't move this drek for us and even if I could, I wouldn't."

Shadow looked confused. "Huh? Why not? Sparky's got a HERF gun out back, Raven and reprogram the RFIDs..."

"You stole from Sydney Post," Madeline interrupted. "Nobody frags with Sydney Post! It's a fragging death sentence!"

Machine scoffed. "What're they gonna do? Go postal on us?"

Everyone glared at him.

"Pop quiz," Madeline said, changing tack. "Who runs all the smuggling in and out of Sydney?"

Sparky raised his hand like he was a kid in primary school. "Oooh! I know that one! The Triads!"

"Thank you, Sparky. See, even the group retard knows that one," Madeline bitched, making Sparky hang his head and shy away. "Now, why do the Triads have a lock on smuggling?"

Raven sighed, replying in a bored monotone. "Because they're in bed with Wuxing and Wuxing has all the shipping contracts and owns or part-owns every mail and courier service in the city."

"No way," Machine denied, shaking his head. "KE would have their balls for breakfast if they tried that drek."

"The Knight couldn't find their own balls with an entire forensic team," Madeline rebuked. "Besides, there's this little thing called extraterritoriality? You might have heard of it, it was kinda a big deal fifty years ago. Wuxing ships the ill-gotten goods, the Triads sell it off... are you starting to see the picture? The only way to sell all this drek would be by smuggling it out of the country... which we can't do because all the smuggling is controlled by the Triads, even if it was worth it. What you have hijacked, ladies and gentlemen, is a bunch of completely worthless crap whose only real use is getting us all skinned alive!"

To punctuate her point, Madeline threw the doll onto the floor. Machine winced, absently rubbing his hip when he saw the doll's side had split open. "There has to be some way to move it," Shadow insisted stubbornly, "we've just got to think out of the box and get creative."

Sighing, Madeline put her hands on her hips. "Fine, the talismonger crap is worthless, might as well destroy it. There might be something valuable somewhere that's worth the risk of getting it out of Australia, like telesma or jewellery. If you're smart, though, you'll just burn it all and forget it ever happened. Come on, Raven, we're late."

Shadow looked up as Raven went to throw the deadbolt again. "What, you're just gonna leave us holding the bag like this?"

"I'm going to see the biosculpter," Raven informed, sounding exasperated. "Madeline and I made the appointment six fraggin' months ago, remember?"

Shadow blinked. "Why the frag you going to see a hacksaw?"

"This particular 'hacksaw' is a world renowned bio-cosmetic enhancement artist," Madeline enunciated prissily. "Jean Phillip gave me the body of my dreams, now he's going to do the same for Raven."

With that, the girls flounced out of the room, slamming the door behind them. Machine spat on the floor with a snarl. "Fraggin' bitch," he swore, shaking his head and rubbing his arm in sync. "Why do we put up with that corp whore, man? What are these Triads fraggin' psychic or somethin'?"

Shadow shrugged. "Or something. Sure, that whole line about the Triads controlling every smuggling operation and postal service in the whole city is total bulldrek but let's face it, you're not exactly unbiased when it comes to KE."

"Hey, last I checked KE was Ares and Ares is the only corp out there actually taking the fight to the bugs and the shedim and all the other monsters out there that wants to suck out our souls! I know the truth; I saw it on the trid!"

Shadow shook his head. The tragedy was, Machine was serious. "Whatever you say, chummer. Either way, I know there has to be somebody out there who will pay for this stuff if only...." Trailing off, Dark Shadow was suddenly struck by an idea. It was an idea so elegant in its simplicity that he wasn't surprised it had gone over everyone else's heads. Shooting to his feet, he whooped triumphantly, punching the air in enthusiasm. "I've got it! It's so fragging simple! Machine, stay sitting right there, I'm about to blow your mind!"

"Oh-kay," Machine replied skeptically.

"No, no, no, I mean it. It'll be like atomic fusion only inside your skull when you hear this. There IS someone out there who wanted all this drek! The people it was being sent to! All we have to do is ransom it back to them! We even have their addresses and everything right here!"

Machine stared at him, slack-jawed. "Dude, that's... that's..."

"Retarded?" Sparky suggested.

"...BRILLIENT!" he finished, jumping to his feet. "There must be thousands of nuyen worth of merchandise here! And they'll be desperate for their goods so they'll pony up at least a percentage!"

"Exactly! Better a little bit of profit than nothing at all, that goes for both us and them," Shadow pontificated, beaming proudly. "Sparky! Get your ass into gear and get that car roadworthy, it's payday!"

#

>>>>>[Just a quick announcement, Bruces and Bruce-ettes. Our local underworld historian, The Other Bruce, will be online to give a lecture on the history of the Triads in Australia. In particular, he will be speaking on the topic of Triad links to Wuxing and how together they've managed to acquire and hold a monopoly in the city's smuggling operations for the last thirty years. Stay tuned, the lecture begins at 22:00 but you can download the reading materials from the bulletin board to get a jump start. The lecture itself is 100¥ a head, tea and biscuits will be served at 21:30. Spots are limited so get in early.]<<<<<
- Ned


The statement in my signature is false.

[Updated on: Mon, 10 September 2012 06:35]

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Re: No Time for Second Chances [message #77356 is a reply to message #62484] Thu, 13 June 2013 09:06 Go to previous messageGo to next message
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Chapter 10

Believe it or not, there aren't many people lining up for sex with 13 year old girls. Oh, yeah, they exist all right but most of them are creepy types with curious odours and bad personal habits. You know, normal teenage boys. For starters, you have to remember that most guys like their girls tall and curvy, as much as the media might cry otherwise. The predators might be out there but I hadn't come across any. Truth is there's much easier ways to satisfy a kink in 2060.

Take, for example, the Dreamchip. Want sex? There's a chip for every age, colour, creed, ethnicity, style, scenario... you name it, it's on a chip somewhere. The vast majority of them are even legal. You don't even need a datajack, just slap on a set of trodes and you're ready for your hot date. Of course, physically doing it with a 'real' person is also a kink, weird as it is, which is why the Yaks have a thriving Bunraku parlour business. In Australia, they're even legal, making the service surprisingly affordable. Or you can just log onto the Matrix and hook up with a like minded person for whatever strikes your fancy in whatever form you choose to take.

My point is that I wasn't rolling in sex, much as you might think a follower of Seductress would be. As it turns out, sex isn't the only pleasurable pastime that we're attracted to. Some of us go for extreme sports, drugs, food and other luxuries; really we're the addictive personalities of the mystical subculture. I substituted skating and free running as my addictions of choice. My new body was at once glorious and frustrating; glorious in that I felt like I was who I was truly supposed to be and frustrating thanks to my second puberty. I had a talent for it, so after every class I took a trip over to rooftop skating park to practice. Despite my elation, I still had a nagging feeling that I'd stolen someone else's life but I tried to force my doubts down and enjoy it while it lasted.

Solomon grudgingly had homework to do, so he'd gone home from class like a good corporate drone. Ace had homework too but didn't care and, as it turns out, Erica gets around on a pair of blades, so she came with. I was doing grinds along a steel railing when I noticed a Nightsky limo pull up in the multilevel carpark next door, near the short ramp that allowed access to the park from Castle Towers shopping centre. I cursed under my breath as Ricky Hand got out of the car with a bunch of henchmen. Erica skidded to a halt beside me as I kicked up my board, following my eyeline as Ricky started walking towards me.

"Trouble?" she whispered, eyeing Ricky in disgust.

"Big trouble," I muttered back, "just keep your cool, I can handle this."

Grinning like an idiot, Ricky's eyes didn't rise above my neck as he approached. "Hey, chica, nice moves!"

Crossing my arms over my chest, I glared at him. "What do you want, Ricky?"

"Oooh," he winced, "guess I'm in the doghouse today."

I shook my head. "Clover's going to be pissed that you're even near me."

"Well, there are people in this world who don't give two dreks about Clover's overprotective BS," he muttered, taking a cigarette out of his jacket pocket. "One of them is my Lodge Master; he wants a word with you."

Glancing at the open door of the Nightsky, I shivered. "Oh, hell no."

"I'm not asking."

"She said no," Erica said, raising her voice. The kids around us started to take notice, slowly coming to a halt as they stared.

"Yeah, I heard her, thanks," Ricky retorted smugly. I tensed when he reached under his jacket again but all he produced was a severed cyberhand. Yanking the thumb made the lighter in the index finger flare to life as he lit his cigarette with it. Waving the hand to put it out, he noticed that Erica was staring at it and smiled. "Like it? Got it off a gillette during a brawl in Swansea," he bantered easily. Squeezing the palm, a four inch, razor sharp, chrome knife popped out of the side of the palm below the pinkie finger. "Fucker was full of surprises."

Erica jumped a little at that but I'd seen Ricky's act before and kept my cool. Then disaster struck when Ace decided to roll up beside me on his skateboard. "This guy bothering you, Naomi?"

My heart skipped a beat. "No, Ace, we're solid," I protested a little too fast, my fear for him giving my voice an edge. Despite what I said, Ace put himself between Ricky and I, glaring up at the older, tougher and way more ruthless man.

Ricky just continued to smirk. "Look, Naomi, none of us have a choice here. Please don't keep my Lodge Master waiting."

"Hey!" Ace snarled. "Don't ignore me!"

Looking down on Ace, Ricky's smirk broadened. "You're right, little man, pardon my rudeness."

"Ace!" I warned a moment too late. Ricky moved inhumanly fast, grabbing Ace by the neck. Ace had been trained well, he reacted with cold efficiency, attempting to twist Ricky's wrist as he delivered several low kicks to the knees. He might as well have tried punching a steel girder; the sharp blows didn't even make Ricky flinch. Erica stepped up but a simple glare from him froze her in place. Turning to me, she smirked, the expression echoing Ricky's exactly. "I'm sure it's perfectly safe, Naomi," she told me confidently, "go and get in the car."

Ace's choked gargle made my decision for me. Picking up my board, I walked over to the Nightsky and slid into the leather seat, sinking comfortably into the plush cushioning. Across from me sat an overweight middle-age Chinese man in an immaculate grey suit that made him look like a character from an ancient flatvid gangster flatvid with his long hair tied in a ponytail. His thin moustache was even waxed. Ricky got into the car not long after and kept his eyes lowered as he sat next to me. "Master Yun," he introduced us as the limo pulled away from the curb, "this is the girl I told you about, Naomi."

"No second name?" Master Yun asked, resting both hands on the enormous pearl at the top of his wooden cane. The carved and lacquered red Eastern Dragon wrapped around it was embellished with golden claws. It was an exquisite piece, though a quick glance in the astral plane showed no sign of enchantment. But then, Master Yun had to be masking himself heavily to evade magical sight. That was one trick I hadn't picked up yet which would have to wait until my first initiation into the deeper mysteries of Black Magic.

"Not anymore," I answered with a shrug, trying to appear nonchalant. I don't know why I even bothered, the glassy-eyed look they were giving me told me they were assensing my own astral signature and reading my emotions. They probably knew what I was feeling better than I did.

Yun didn't seem happy with that answer, giving Ricky a meaningful look. "No parents?"

Looking back at him, I started getting curious. "Again, not anymore; look, what the heck is this about?"

Scowling, Yun snapped something at Ricky in Han that I barely understood. Ricky protested whatever Yun had said, which just made the argument worse. Next thing I know, they're both yelling at each other in another language, leaving me out in the cold. It wasn't until I picked up on one particular word that I interrupted. "Woah, woah, woah, did he say girlfriend?" I asked, pointing at Ricky. "Oh, hell no! Master Yun, I don't know what he's been telling you but I am not involved with him in any way."

"Naomi, can I please handle this?" Ricky asked in a strained voice.

"I'm pretty sure my guardian told you to go jump in a lake," I snarled at him. "Also, intimidating and thought controlling my friends? Not the way to make a good impression on a girl."

Yun considered me carefully in the silence that followed, his eyes boring holes into me. "You don't find Ricky suitable?" he finally inquired in a carefully toneless voice. I'll give him one thing; Yun has a great poker face.

I chose my next words very carefully. "Master Yun, courtship between myself and Ricky is unrealistic. First, my guardian disapproves. Second, I have no idea if I'm of Han descent or Mandarin on my mother's side, much less my father's. I was born and raised an Australian, in a school run by a Japanese corporation. I have no interest in being directly involved with any Triad, though I don't disapprove of any such organizations either. Lastly, my guardian pays her dues to the Green Gang Triad while you and Ricky are Red Dragon Triad and the last place I want to be is stuck between Triad politics, which I know nothing about. I understand that age difference isn't supposed to be such a big issue these days but even so, there's a decade between us. And finally no, I don't particularly like Ricky; his actions haven't endeared himself to me whatsoever."

Ricky looked like he was sucking on a lemon after that last point. As far as I was concerned, it served him right. After a few amused snickers, Master Yun, threw his head back and laughed. "You're right, my son, she is interesting," he observed; "a decade between you both, hmm? Yet so mature, your guardian must be very proud. Actually, Ricky's feelings for you are a mere distraction compared to the reason I asked for an introduction. I understand you were to receive a birthday present in the mail today. By any chance would you know the nature of the gift?"

"Clover was very secretive about it," I answered, shaking my head.

"But you're aware of the sender?"

"Vaguely," I lied, "Clover buys everything from him. From what I understand, everyone in the business does."

"But would Mr Ching have a reason to want you dead?"

I paused, not expecting that question at all. "Excuse me?"

His grip on the pearl pommel of his walking staff tightened. "During his investigation of the Australia Post van that had contained, amongst other things, your present, Ricky here assensed an unusual astral signature inside the van. It was feint, barely a slight trace of a spiritual miasma clinging to the space. Now, Ricky's not the best at astral work. Since your present is the only piece not itemised and described properly on the shipping manifest, I'm interested in what that old bastard Ching was sending you and if he planned to unleash a destructive spirit on my territory."

Scoffing, I smiled. "I think Mr. Ching would have much easier ways of bumping me off if he wanted to."

"Without losing Clover's business or betraying his deal to protect her household?"

"You'd need more concrete proof than vague allusions to a weak spiritual miasma in a postal van to convince me otherwise."

"Naomi," Ricky interrupted, "we're not joking. There was something very dangerous inside that van. Master Yun is offering you protection at my request."

"What sort of protection?"

"Membership in the Red Dragon Triad," Yun pressed.

I blinked, looking between both men as I waited for them to laugh or at least get to the punchline. Unfortunately, both of them were deadly serious. Collecting myself, it took a moment to process the idea of what they were offering. My composure failed me as questions started pouring out of my mouth. "Wait, I thought the Triads only recruit Han Chinese?"

Yun snorted. "Not 'only' Han, even though the apple doesn't fall far from the tree in this part of the world, even if we were in Hong Kong, you'd be amazed what allowances are made for awakened members. Besides, even the Triads must adapt to Sixth World."

Sitting back in the chair, I crossed my legs and folded my arms, dropping my VR glasses down over my eyes with a nod. "Not interested," I told them both, "even if I was, Clover would kill me. Besides, I don't practice your magical tradition."

Yun hissed, leaning forward on his cane. "You know there are a great many things we can do to you and Clover that won't anger the Green Gang."

"Master Yun, I have connections to the shadow community," I explained politely, "I know most of the people you'd send after me. Not that they wouldn't take the job, just keep in mind that I'm not worth starting a shadow war over. Please consider my denial my loss."

He smirked again, sinking back into his chair. "Oh, I do like you," he complimented. Ricky let out a slow breath next to me as the limo finally pulled up to the curb outside Clover's. "If you change your mind, just talk to Ricky here," Yun offered.

"I'll keep your gracious offer in mind," I responded before hopping out of the car, taking my skateboard with me. Watching the limo move off, I had butterflies in my stomach, not only from relief but in anxiety. What was Clover going to say? As a follower of the Dark Goddess, she might not be able to help poking the entire situation with a stick just to watch it explode. Should I even tell her? She'd be furious if she found out if I didn't.

I was thinking so hard that I wasn't paying attention to my surroundings. I did have the presence of mind to check for cars before crossing the road but I only absently registered the sound of the dilapidated Ford Americar's door opening beside me. Next thing I felt was a large hand wrapping around my face from behind before a sharp pain in my back brought the darkness.

#

"Jesus motherfraggin' Christ!" Shadow swore as he pulled the girl's body into the back seat with him. "Drek! Drek! Drek! My hand's fraggin' numb, man! Shit, that's my good hand! Fuck!"

"Gawd, man, don't be such a baby," Steel Machine snarled, reaching back to slam the door shut. "What the frag are you thinkin' anyway? What do we need the little slot for?"

"Hey, hey... hey," Shadow warned, trying to point with his hand which just flopped uselessly at the end of his arm. "She was walking right into that talismonger over there that we were going to hit up. I mean, ok, think about it, ransoming off Clover's merchandise is a good idea but it looks kinda desperate, like we hadn't planned it all along. A successful kidnapping, however...."

Machine smirked. "Yeah, ok, that works; good idea. Say, she's kinda hot."

Shadow slapped him across the cheek. "Hey! Eyes front, keep your mind on the fraggin' job, pervert."

"I'm not the one with my hand on her boob!" Machine growled.

Looking down, Shadow realized where his hand was and snatched it away, rubbing it against his jacket to get the imaginary dirt off. "Oh, Christ, I'm sorry," he told the unconscious body in his lap.

"Pussy," Machine snapped, shaking his head as he turned back to the wheel and pulled away from the curb. "All right, where do we stash her?"

"Back to Sparky's," Shadow ordered, "we can't move the rest of that crap anyway, might as well just throw the place away when we're done."

Machine winced. "Dude, that's Sparky's shop. He's gonna be pissed if we do that."

"You really give two dreks about that idiot?"

"Hey, he has an auto shop! Last I checked, that's more than the two of us have combined!"

"After we're through with this job, we won't need Sparky and his BS second-rate work," Shadow growled. "We're cutting him loose; with a bullet."

Slowly nodding, Machine smiled. "Yeah, I can dig it chummer. We're stone cold 'runners, yo!" A fist bump later, he gunned the engine to make the Americar grind a little less slowly down the street.

#

Detective Bill Kull scanned down the list of e-mails on the AR display that hovered over his desk when one in particular caught his eye. Opening it, he read the single line of text once before activating a trace program to try and track the source. "Hey, Katherine," he called his partner over, "check this out."

Walking over from her desk, she leant over his shoulder to read the e-mail out loud. "Three armed male Shadowrunners have the goods from the Sydney Post robbery at Sparky's Automechanics. Well, that's short and to the point."

Kull slammed his fist on the desk when his trace program crashed. "Son of a bitch! When was the last time you felt like you were being used?"

"I don't know, I haven't had a date in forever," Katherine quipped, summoning her commlink's address book. "I've got a friend in SWAT that can get us some backup."

Kull smirked. "You don't think we should call the Narcs?"

"Just slow us down," Katherine smirked back as she placed the call.

"Come on," Kull said, getting up and grabbing his jacket, "you can call on the way while I get some drones in there. And for god's sake, don't mention it's possible Shadowrunners, or the media will start the fun without us."

#

Tom Sai Luk restaurant was busy but they always had a private booth open for Master Yun. Ricky the Hand ate silently with the rest of the apprentices while Master Yun picked carefully at his lunch. The babble of the regular customers was muted by the heavy red curtain across the alcove's entrance made of satin, woven Kevlar and scales of hard ballistic plating. The astral defences were much more impressive, between the various barriers and guardian spirits that glowed like Christmas trees on the astral plane.

Ricky bowed in apology to his Master when his commlink pinged, signalling that he had an urgent message. Excusing himself from the table, he slipped through the curtain and into the kitchen to find some anonymity, if not privacy. The e-mail was short and to the point: 'Three armed male Shadowrunners have the goods from the Sydney Post robbery at Sparky's Automechanics'. Sniffing, Ricky flicked that window to one side and dialled the number for his second in command.

There was going to be a reckoning.

#

"Sparky?" Shadow called out, the girl slung over his shoulder as he shook his hand to try and get feeling back into it. The autoshop was empty apart from the goods and tools scattered about. "Yo, Sparky! Give us a hand here, pal?"

Closing the door of the Americar behind him, he turned to where Steel Machine was clambering out through the window. "Was Sparky going somewhere today?"

"Retard never goes anywhere," Machine grumbled.

Shrugging, Shadow hauled the girl over to a chair and set her limp body down gently. For a moment, looking down at her, he wondered if this was all just part of some dreamchip he was slotting. She was far too good looking to be a real 13 year old, even for an elf. "I'll see if Sparky's ok," he said, "see if you can find something to tie her up with and maybe a sack to put over her head."

"Got some cable ties somewhere 'round here," Machine grumbled as he got to work.

Checking the workshop, Shadow found nothing peculiar or out of place. Or, rather, everything was just as messy as it always was. Sparky wasn't ever the kind of mechanic that obsessively kept everything in place, he was too dumb to organize himself like that. Walking around the counter, he poked his head into the office out back, again finding nothing but mess, a half-eaten pizza and the noisy fridge in the corner. Madeline and Raven had their own digs but Shadow, Machine and Sparky had been dossing here for the last few months. Scanning the debris almost made him nostalgic. Picking his way through the clean path to the hallway beyond, Shadow paused when he saw the storm shelter door open.

"Yo! Sparks?" Shadow called out, hearing nothing in return but a feint tinny echo of his own voice. A chill ran down his spine along with droplets of cold sweat. Shadow didn't consider himself magical in any way, or particularly smart, but he had hunches and premonitions on occasion. Drawing his gun out of its holster at his back, he thumbed the safety off as he approached the hatch, looking down the bare concrete stairs beyond that led down into darkness. "Sparks, quit messing around down there!"

He was so keyed up that when Machine stumbled into the hallway behind him, Shadow whirled around, taking aim purely by reflex. "Woah!" Machine, gasped, suddenly finding himself nose to barrel with the old Ares Predator, holding his hands up. "Relax, it's me!"

Slowly releasing his breath, Shadow flipped the safety back on and lowered the weapon. "God damn it, slothead!"

"I'm sorry," Machine apologized with uncharacteristic contriteness. "The girl's trussed up for thanksgiving, where do we stash her?"

Shadow looked down into the storm shelter. Every building in Sydney had at least one by council law. When the Mana Storm overtakes the whole city, you're either safe behind the best mana barriers money can buy or scrabbling to hide as deep down as you possibly can under the living Earth. Even shadow spirits and wild magic can't breach a few layers of topsoil. The stairs led to an open bulkhead, strong enough that maybe even a manifested spirit couldn't rip through it when sealed. They kept proper supplies down there, of course, tinned food enough to last ten people a few days. Motioning for Machine to follow, Shadow headed down the stairs first.

He was disappointed. The shelter was mostly as they'd left it except that Sparky seemed to have moved some of the talismonger pap down on his own initiative; most of it was piled in the corner next to a round table with a deck of cards lying atop it. Most of the food was kept on a shelf in plain sight, perishables loaded into an old industrial freezer from the turn of the century that gave off a constant buzz. It reminded Shadow that he'd been meaning to buy a can opener. Otherwise, the shelter was empty. Grabbing one of the chairs, Shadow gestured for Machine to dump the girl on it.

Depositing her with some relief, Machine wiped his brow. "Think she's got any juice of her own?"

"Doesn't matter if she's bagged and gagged," Shadow muttered, holstering his piece. "Mages need line of sight to target you with a spell without special equipment." He didn't mention that he heard that slotting Minotaur: Operation Delta. Not a bad action dreamchip.

Both of them went for their guns when the fridge at the back of the room gave off a hellacious squeal, the ancient compressor in the guts of the machine struggling to circulate refrigerant through the heat-exchanging pipes. Scowling, Machine spat on the dusty floor, settling his gun back in its holster. "Goddamn fraggin' P.O.S.! I told Sparky to fix that stupid thing a hundred fraggin' times! I'm going up, it stinks down here."

Watching his partner trudge back up the stairs in his steel-capped boots, Shadow sniffed at the air and winced. It reeked. "Jesus Christ, did you crap your pants or something man?"

"Hell no!" Machine called back. "Probably dead rats in the ventilation system, don't worry, it's Sparky's 'shop let him clean up that shit!"

Nodding absently, Shadow wrinkled his nose as he took one last look around before heading back up himself. A few minutes later, he had a banana sandwich in his mouth procured from the kitchen as he paced and fiddled with his commlink, nervously racking his brains as he considered how to properly deliver their ransom demand. That was when someone buzzed the door.

Machine growled, smashing his fist down on the intercom button from the slashed couch he was lounging on, a half-finished beer in his other hand. "Frag off, we're closed!" He didn't even wait for a reply before cutting off the comm.

"Shit, man, this is Sparky's business," Shadow scolded, "what if that was a fraggin' customer?"

"If Sparky wants customers, he should be here during fraggin' work hours," Machine snapped. "I'm not squatting in his joint to be his goddamn secretary."

The intercom buzzed again. Shadow grabbed Machine's forearm before he could smash the intercom again. "Why don't you let me take this?" When Machine shrugged, Shadow gently pressed the intercom button. "I'm sorry for that outburst, my compatriot is under a lot of stress, how may I help you?"

"Open the door so we can talk," a man's voice with a Chinese accent answered. Shadow glanced at Machine, who shrugged, taking another pull on his beer.

"I'm sorry, who is this?" Shadow asked politely.

"Do either of you have a cyberarm?"

Machine gave Shadow a questioning look, quietly mouthing 'what the fuck?' under his breath.

"You see, I collect cyberarms," the voice continued. "Well, actually, just the hands. It's amazing what someone's hands will tell you about them. Then hand is the way humanity enacts their will on the world around them. The greatest of men who can order the death of another human being from across the globe can have the softest, most beautiful, hands. A common man who slaved to feed his family and build an empire has rough, calloused hands. A soldier can never quite get rid of the powder burns that stain them. Listing to your voices, I have the feeling the only thing I'll find is trace amounts of semen."

It took a moment for Shadow's brain to process the fact that he'd just been insulted. "What?"

"Let me spell it out for you two fools. I'm going to open this door like a tin can. Then I'm going to cut off your hands. After that, I don't really have a plan, so I think we'll play it by ear."

Laughing, Machine leant over the intercom. "Look, slothead, I don't know who the frag you are...."

Before Machine could finish, the front door of Sparky's Autoshop caved in, hinges squealing and snapping as the twisted remains fell inward with a deafening clang. Shadow had his gun out and shooting before Machine was even up off the couch, blasting away in the general direction of the man who stepped through the door. The self-styled street samurai barely registered the smile on the short, young, Chinese boy's face before he was blinded by the report of his heavy pistol. When the gun finally clicked empty, the Chinese boy was still standing there unmarked, bullet holes peppering the surrounding brickwork.

Machine's gun shook visibly as he pointed it at the mage. "Who the fuck are you?"

"They call me Ricky Hand," he introduced himself, stepping forward and dusting off his clean-cut Chinese-style suit. Behind him, more Chinese men entered. They wore a motley assortment of armoured synthleather and carried a mixture of submachine guns, heavy pistols and assault rifles, most modified with smartlinks. Their predominant colour was red, each ganger having at least one red item in prominent display, some going with fully red outfits. "I'm here on behalf of the Red Dragon Triad."

Gulping, Shadow popped the clip in his pistol and jammed in a fresh magazine while Ricky watched with a wry smile of amusement. "You want trouble, huh? Ok, which one of you assholes is going to be first? Do you know who the frag you're messing with?"

There was a long, drawn out pause during which nothing could be heard but the rattle of Machine's gun shaking in his hand. Then Ricky's mouth broke into a smirk as the Triads started to laugh.

"What?" Shadow asked, confused, right before an unseen force gripped his gun hand like a vice. Watching in horror, Shadow's arm trembled, fighting against the inexorable force that slowly turned the muzzle of the gun to point at his face.

"Sh-shadow? What the fuck?" Machine stuttered, eyes bulging as his friend tried to grapple with his own traitorous limb.

"It's not me!" Shadow shouted, panicking as the barrel mashed itself into his cheek, his trigger finger starting to squeeze.

"Put your gun down or I'll spray paint the wall grey," Ricky threatened.

Machine looked at his friend, eyes wild as sweat streamed down his face. Shakily, he opened his hand, allowing the gun to fall to the floor before collapsing to his knees. "Oh God, Jesus fucking Christ."

Ricky sighed, stepping forward to pick up and examine the gun. "Second hand street shop work," he snarled in disgust, popping the clip and ejecting the round from the chamber. "Exactly how did you think a couple of amateurs like you would...."

Pausing, Ricky held is hand up for silence. There was another noise growing louder in the background. A heavy thump-thump-thump-thump-thump like the sound of rotorblades. Exactly like the sound of rotorblades.

"Please don't kill me!" Machine begged desperately, tears streaming down his cheek as he grasped Ricky's leg desperately. "I-I've got alimony payments! My wife and kids will starve! I'll do anything you say!"

Growling, Ricky pulled one of the torn-off cyberhands off his belt and shoved the grasping member under Machine's chin. As programmed, the troll-sized extremity clutched machine's neck, slowly crushing his windpipe, leaving Machine to writhe on the floor, struggling to pull it off. "You can shut the frag up," Ricky snarled before ordering his men in Han Chinese. "Check the windows. Two of you watch the back door, find out what that fucking noise is."

Then a small canister arced through the open doorway, bouncing once on the concrete floor before rolling into Ricky's foot. "PIGS!" someone shouted before the flash-bang grenade turned the world white.

#

My shoulder ached like someone had clubbed me with a stun baton. Which, of course, they had. My first coherent thought was pure rage. I was going to find the prick that clubbed me and shove that stun baton up his ass. Then I tried to move and discovered that my wrists and ankles were bound with what felt like cable ties around a chair, at which point my only thought was 'well, frag.'

From the feeling on my back I probably had a burn that needed to be treated. It hurt like hell. When I opened my eyes I found myself peering at small blobs of light filtering through thick synthetic cloth of some type that smelled like motor oil. I had to fight down the sudden surge of panic that flooded through me, adrenaline hammering my heart. Struggling experimentally, I gave up trying to slip my bonds after a few moments as the tight plastic cords cut into my skin.

Practicing some breathing techniques Clover had taught me, I managed to centre myself and think. Luckily they hadn't taken away my jacket and, I hoped, hadn't searched me very well. As it turns out they hadn't, shifting my arm I could feel the weight of my multitool in the inside top pocket. Fortunately they'd secured me to the chair by looping the cable tie around one of struts on the chair's back, which meant I could twist around and slowly massage the tool out of my pocket with one arm. When it fell on the floor, I stood, lifting the chair up with me, and knelt, lowering myself gently onto my side so I could pick it up. From there, unfolding the saw blade and freeing myself with one hand was a simple matter.

Finally getting the oily sack off my head, I took a deep breath. I found myself in a run-down storm shelter. There was an ancient fridge in the corner next to a shelf full of canned food and a poker table sitting in the opposite corner. Against the wall was a pile of merchandising that I recognized immediately as Colver's stolen stock. The chair I'd been strapped to match the rest around the table. There was a rank smell in the air like something had died and unleashed the contents of its bowls upon the world during its last moments. Blinking, I shifted my sight into the astral plane to take a measure of my surroundings. What I saw made me gag. A sickening miasma permeated astral space, even worse than the physical odour.

Sniffing the air, I tried to find the source of the smell by following my nose. It led me to the icebox. At first I thought something had died in the gap between it and the wall but there was nothing there other than piles of dust. Curious, I opened the door and immediately clapped both hands over my mouth to stop from screaming.

Someone had stuffed a wiry man in stained mechanic's overalls inside without regard to the way his limbs were supposed to twist. The body was bent at unnatural angles like a human pretzel, bloody ice clinging to his lifeless, staring, face. One hand gripped a thin leather strap from which hung a piece of green jade that had been carved vaguely in the shape of a '9', or maybe half of a Yin-Yang symbol, with the strap laced through the eye.

It took me a moment to get over the shock. Coming to my senses, I looked over to where the door leading to the stairs up was standing open. I heard the feint sound of a trideo playing somewhere in the building but nothing else and breathed a sigh of relief. Looking back to the necklace hanging from the dead man's hand, I hesitated. The leather cord was hanging freely from his limp index finger, held out like he was offering it to the first person who opened the door. Without quite knowing why, I reached out and slipped it out of his hand, closing my fist around the jewel.

I felt a strange tingling sensation like pins and needles shoot up my arm. It was a familiar feeling; I'd handled enough enchanted objects to know when I was holding onto something with power. Giving into temptation, I stuffed it into my pocket before creeping over to the door, peering up the stairs keeping my pointed ears cocked for any noise. Just above the sound of the trideo, I heard unintelligible voices, like someone shouting on the opposite side of a wall.

The first loud bang made me flinch and stumble back off the stairway. The second made me fall on my ass as I was half blinded by what looked like a flash of lightning. Then the gunfire started. Half of me wanted to curl up in a ball in the corner and wait it out but the other half of me was screaming that I needed to run. I was SINless, you could murder me and no-one would care. Technically, kidnapping me wasn't even a crime. And, frankly, I was just as petrified by the thought of being discovered by Knight Errant as I was by the men who kidnapped me. What if my body still had Shiawase citizenship? It wasn't a chance I could take.

So I crawled up the stairs, lying as low as possible while hot lead tore apart the walls and ceiling. What I saw when I poked my head over the lip of the floor just enough to see what was going on was pure chaos. Triad gangers stumbled about firing blindly, their ears bleeding profusely. Several SWAT team members lay in pools of their own blood on the floor, their compatriots returning fire over their still bodies. Someone had hit an oil canister, which had spread fire all over the autoshop. A dark-haired man wearing a black leather longcoat was crawling across the floor, literally dragging another man in a leather jacket who was weeping openly and seemed to want nothing more than to curl up into a foetal ball and die.

That was when I saw it. A shadow flickered between the shooters and where it touched chaos followed. I watched a SWAT member trip over his bootlace and shoot himself in the leg. Two Triad gangers mistook each other for enemies and unloaded into each other with submachine guns. An overhead beam spontaneously weakened, crashing to the floor between the combatants and spraying flaming oil everywhere. Tactics and training had gone out the window, what I was witnessing was a brawl.

I made my decision. I was getting the frag out of this nightmare.

Ducking back down, I tried to block out the noise and concentrate, reaching out into the ether to lure a spirit to my aid. Ask three different magicians where spirits come from and you'll get three different answers. Some say spirits are created as avatars of a magician's will. Others say that they are intelligences from the astral place bound to service. Personally, I lure allies to my side with the promise of physicality, empowering them with the ability to affect our world in return for their service. This time I was reaching as far as I could to find the most powerful spirit I could summon but something had changed. It takes more effort to pull a powerful spirit to my side, in fact I knew if I overreached the drain could knock me out or even kill me. Now I was reaching farther and deeper into the astral plane than I ever had before.

Confused, I reached into my pocket and grasped the amulet. Then I understood, the jade stone was a some sort of power focus and a powerful one at that. But it was impossible that it was lending me its power so quickly, I hadn't even performed an attuning ritual to tap its power and yet there it was, expanding my abilities exponentially. The smart move would be to reject the power but I wasn't in a position to make the smart move. I was desperate and I think, somehow, the power behind the jewel knew it was making an offer I couldn't refuse.

The air spirit formed like a miniature hurricane on the stairs in front of me, growing bigger and bigger until it filled the small room above. I heard shouts of panic, Triads and police running for their lives as lightning arced from the spirit's howling form. "Knock down the back wall!" I ordered, pointing authoritatively. I swear, it bowed to me before turning to hammer the wall with its fists.

Usually, I'd say knocking down walls was the sort of job that earth spirits excelled at. That was before I saw the kind of damage a cyclone can inflict first hand. The wall didn't so much collapse as erode away, rotting before my eyes as the winds whipped away the remaining sand until there was nothing but a smooth, circular hole in the wall left. Peeking back up out of the stairwell again, it was hard to hear anything over the howl of the winds but the gunfire seemed to have died down, or at least become more sporadic and distant. Wherever the fight had moved to, it wasn't inside the autoshop. Paramedics had taken the opportunity to start dragging the wounded outside for treatment, away from the fire that several drones were trying to put out with built-in extinguishers. Some of them looked at the air spirit nervously, obviously weighing the danger it presented versus how long they had to save a life.

I was about to turn and order the spirit to whisk me away when someone grabbed my ankle. Looking down, I found the street samurai in the leather longcoat, his face covered in grime except for twin streaks where his tears had washed the dirt away. He was still dragging his whimpering friend under one arm. "Please," he begged, his voice rough, "please take us with you. I'm sorry...."

Hesitating, I looked down at his pathetic face then back at the hole. I didn't know what role these two had played in my kidnapping but chances were one of them was the bastard that had hit me with the stun baton. On the other hand, I didn't know if they were working with or for the Triads or not. In fact, I didn't know anything. And yet I really wanted to leave them there for Knight Errant. Sighing deeply, I made my decision. "Air spirit," I ordered, "fly the three of us into the air invisibly, I'll give you directions where to take us in transit."

Nodding, I felt the spirit's winds envelop me, the two idiots on the floor screaming as we were lifted into the air, fading from sight.

#

Detective Bill Kull swore as he shoved his Ruger Superwarhawk heavy pistol into his shoulder holster, surveying the cluster frag that had become of his operation. His partner was sitting in the back of a DocWagon ambulance, trying to hold still while the paramedics patched a glancing blow to her forehead before she lost more blood. Others were being rushed to the ICU. His ribs ached from the hits he'd taken to his flak jacket, though mercifully he'd come away from the fight with nothing more major than scrapes and bruises.

The Triads had given as good as they'd taken, an equal number of their wounded lying on the ground as the SWAT team thanks to their wizard, who'd somehow managed to escape in the confusion. Sitting on the hood of a patrol car, he held his face in his hands for a few moments, trying to piece together what had gone wrong. He remembered the SWAT team's mage going down first and then... chaos. Friend and foe seemed to blur together until there was nothing left but kill or be killed. Had he shot some of his own men? He couldn't remember.

"Detective Kull!" a high-pitched voice yelled shrilly at him. Opening his eyes, he found Detective Yolanda Rain storming up to him, her partner rushing to follow behind. "I thought we were clear this was going to be a joint operation!"

"You should thank me for keeping you out of this clusterfuck," he growled, too tired to get to his feet, "besides, we got a tip and couldn't wait for you to catch up."

Kull barely saw Rain's fist before it slammed into his cheek. What looked like soft flesh was in fact the cold and unyielding chrome of a cyberam, the blow knocking him off the hood onto his hands and knees. Corvin grabbed her partner around the waist and pulled her back, kicking and screaming as Kull lurched to his feet, seeing red. He took a cheap shot to Rain's stomach and didn't care, doubling her over gasping as she rolled across the asphalt.

"I don't have time for this drek!" he bellowed at the top of his lungs. "If we find any BTLs or narcotics in there, I'll be happy to hand over everything we have to you. Until then, get off my fragging back!"

He was about to turn around and storm off when Corvin called out to him. "We know the mage who was leading the Triads!"

That stopped him. Snarling, he vented the rest of his anger by denting the hood of the squad car with his boot, whirling back around to face Corvin. "All right, you and your partner get your shit together. We'll talk back at the station. You can have the pleasure of hearing the Captain chew me out, that should brighten your partner's day."


The statement in my signature is false.
Re: No Time for Second Chances [message #82518 is a reply to message #62484] Mon, 10 February 2014 07:10 Go to previous message
Dr. Bender is currently offline  Dr. Bender
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Chapter 11

Finding a place to set down that wasn't too far away from Clover's was tougher than I expected. In the end, I settled for the roof of the highest apartment building I could find, one without a good view from any surrounding buildings. My air spirit dropped us unceremoniously in the loose gravel and while I managed to land on my feet the other two were nowhere near as graceful. "Air spirit," I addressed the being respectfully, "if either of these two attack me, kill them both."

I needn't have bothered; they weren't in any shape to resist even if they wanted to. The 'street sam' broke down on his hands and knees, crying like a little girl and his friend was still practically catatonic. Standing over what looked to be grown men, I felt like a schoolyard bully picking on kids half my age. Shaking my head, I leant over and checked the wannabe street samurai's pockets, finding my commlink and a stun baton. "Oh, you're the asshole that zapped me?" I snarled, giving him a kick to the ribs that made him grunt.

"I'm sorry," he gasped as much from my blow as through his tears.

Squatting next to him, I pressed the button on the stun baton which made an impressive electrical crackle to illustrate my point. "You know you have this set for fragging trolls, right? Ever been hit with one of these?"

He winced, rolling onto his back and holding up his arms like he thought I was going to strike him across the face. "No! No, please! I'll do anything you want, just don't hit me!"

"Jesus Christ," I blasphemed under my breath, standing back up and flicking off the stun baton with my thumb. "Are you two really shadowrunners or did someone delay Halloween a few days without telling me? Who the fuck are you two anyway?"

"Dark Shadow," the fake street samurai introduced himself, "this is one of my partners, Steel Machine."

"Dark... Shadow?" I asked incredulously. "Did you get that name off a cereal box?"

Scrabbling in the gravel, he turned and rested his forehead on the floor at my feet, aping a traditional Japanese bow. "Please, I'm so sorry, I swear we didn't mean to hurt you things just spiralled out of our control! I'm sorry we hijacked your merchandise; we were just trying to make ends meet. Please, I'm begging you, I don't want to die."

Looking down on him, I found myself rubbing my temples trying to alleviate my frustration. I wanted to order the air spirit to throw them both off the roof but I couldn't bring myself to order a man's death solely to make myself feel better. On the other hand, the idea of turning them in to Knight Errant also rubbed me the wrong way, they might be wannabe posers but it still felt like a horrible breach of professional courtesy. Letting them loose wasn't an option either, they had kidnapped me, knocked me out with an AZ-150 Super Stun Baton designed to put down a troll and probably wanted ransom me back to Clover. Who knows if they'd have actually given me back or sold me into slavery, or maybe turned my body in to the Tamanous crime syndicate for organ harvesting. Something told me that if the tables were turned, these two would be singing a different tune.

There are times I hate having common decency. "Get up," I ordered, "think you can slap some sense into your friend?"

Nodding, he crawled over and started shaking Machine while I dropped my AR glasses over my eyes and booted up my 'link. It only took a few moments for me to have an agent sifting through the 'trix for the two schlub's biometrics and just a few more moments for it to come back with hits. Both of these boys were SINners. 'Dark Shadow' was really Geoff Parker, he even had a day job at a Renraku shipping warehouse. Steel Machine's real name was Nigel Standing, a former limo driver who'd been fired for using stims on the job, though he had no drug or BTL convictions. Both had registered cyberware, Shadow sporting a skillwire while Machine had been installed with a basic vehicle control rig. A quick look at Netranger told me that the two idiots weren't linked in to the runner community at large which got me curious. "This your first job?" I asked.

Shadow nodded ruefully, Machine still unresponsive. "We just thought we could sell on any magic crap we found," he explained in a small voice. "But then we were afraid anyone we sold to would sell us out to the triads."

"And that led to kidnapping me how?"

He fidgeted like a schoolboy. "We were getting kind of desperate."

"Unbe-fucking-leaveable," I muttered darkly. "So you weren't hired to harass Clover's? No Mr. Johnson targeting us, it was all your own idea?"

Shadow nodded. "We thought we were proving we could handle biz."

I didn't believe him, or more correctly I believed he was someone's dupe. "What about the body stuffed in the fridge back at the autoshop?"

"What body?" he asked, obviously shocked.

"Looked like a mechanic, wore grease-stained overalls, looked kinda derpy?"

"Sparky? Sparky's dead?!?" His eyes went wide as his knees started shaking. A moment later they gave out, the weight of Machine dragging him down until he was sitting stunned in the gravel. Staring into space he shook his head absently, as if he could make things better by denying the reality. "Sparky was an idiot but he was a good guy... I smelt something nasty when we tied you to the chair... hey, how the frag did you get out of those cable ties anyway?"

Scowling at him, I rolled my eyes. "I doubt you'll ever get a chance to tie someone up again but here's a tip: when you're searching someone check for concealed blades as well as guns and commlinks. So, was there anyone else in your crew besides you, Machine and Sparky?"

"Madeline Smith and Raven Darkmayne," he spilled without thinking. "Raven's our hacker, Madeline... I guess she's our face? Sparky wasn't really a member he just let us crash at his place for some reason. We knew Raven from high school; Madeline was Raven's squeeze so she kinda invited herself along. We were looking for a first easy score when Raven suggested we hit the post."

Pinching the bridge of my nose, I counted to ten. "Ok, let me get this straight. You two idiots have no idea what you're doing? What the frag are you thinking playing shadowrunner?"

"Hey, if I had my Gun Kata 'soft right now, I'd kick your skinny ass from here to...."

I cut him off with a kick to the face, standing over him as he spat blood and teeth. "Let's get something perfectly straight. If you had your skillsofts I'd still kick both your asses off this damn roof. I whisper one word to my air spirit and it'll send you base jumping without a parachute, are you scanning me chummer?"

"I scan, I scan," he gasped.

Putting my hands on my hips, I grunted. "Ok, what the frag is this guy's deal?" I asked, pointing to Machine.

Shadow winced. "He talks a big game but he can't handle violence. Usually he just drives the car. He'll be ok in an hour or two; we were going to get him therapy as soon as we got some nuyen flowing in."

This was getting better and better, it was hard not to laugh. I was going to have a ball telling this story on Netranger, no-one was going to believe it. "So, where are Madeline and Raven now?"

"Gone to see some drekhead biosculptor called Jean Phillip," Shadow muttered. "Madeline's a manager at the A-Mart in Castle Hill. She's paying for Raven to get some work done."

"If she has that much cash, why is Madeline looking to get in the biz?"

Shadow shrugged. "I dunno, didn't care, didn't ask."

For a moment I was seriously reconsidering pitching him off the roof. These idiots were literally too stupid to live. "Ok, here's what's going to happen now. For some stupid sentimental reason, I don't want to kill you. But before you start getting ideas, I swear I'll have my spirit snap your neck in a heartbeat if you try something stupid, scan? The only reason you're alive is the same reason I avoid stepping on ants."

He nodded quickly.

"So, here's what's going to happen. I'm going to cast a masking spell on you both as a disguise and then we're going back to Clover's. You assholes owe her big-time, so if I were you I'd start practicing kissing her dimpled red ass."

We got lucky on the trip over to Clover's, which went off without a hitch. I disguised the two idiots as kids about my age to prevent anyone from asking awkward questions. I was forced to dismiss my air spirit just before sunset on the way over but they were so crushed that I had no problem wrangling them to Clover's front door. Just to be sure I reminded them I could drop the masking spell in the middle of the street and have Knight Errant pick them up.

Of course, Clover wasn't happy. The look on her face when she opened the door spoke volumes so I decided to head her off before she launched into a tirade. "I'm sorry, I was about to head home when Ricky Hand insisted on taking me to meet his boss then I got kidnapped. Give me ten minutes and I can explain the whole situation."

And I did, from beginning to end, without omitting anything. When I was finished, Clover glowered at the two idiots while they grovelled before her hooves. They were terrible grovelers, nowhere near as polished as a proper Shiawase wageslave. Watching the gears turn in her head, I found myself once again stepping between the idiots and a quick death. "Um, Clover," I said soothingly, "I know they're idiots that did us both wrong but they're really not worth the laundry bill for cleaning their blood out of our clothes. They know they owe us big time but they can repay what they owe better alive than dead, right?"

"Darling, they can't actually be arrested for your kidnapping," Clover said in a low, dangerous, tone. "You're SINless, in the eyes of the law you don't exist. The only way we can protect you is to send a message that screwing with you isn't conducive to anyone's continued health."

"I'm SINless, they're not," I pointed out. "It's screwed up but if we kill them, we can be put up for murder charges. I know we need to do something about them but killing them isn't a real option. On the other hand, as you pointed out, the only thing they've done wrong in the eyes of the law is the postal robbery. We hand them over to Knight Errant, they'll go to jail and the Triads will probably have them murdered on the inside, so that's just as good as pulling the trigger ourselves. I know I don't want that bad karma haunting me and if you think about it for a moment I know you'll agree with me."

Clover sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. "All right, no need to lay it on so thick. Luckily for these bozos, my shipment was insured or I probably would kill 'em, bad karma or not. Hell, I'm a hair's width away from killing them just for the possibility they might try to turn you in for the corporate bounty on awakened SINless. But I've got a better idea, just leave them with me. What about their accomplices, though?"

"Don't worry, I have a plan," I reassured her, "just give me a few days to clean this mess up."

With one last growl, she summoned one of her bound air spirits with a snap of her fingers. "These two try to leave these premises, hurt anyone or access the matrix, kill 'em," she ordered the vaguely humanoid mist before clomping away. Shadow and Machine cringed when the spirit turn to stare at them emotionlessly.

Taking that as Clover's sign of assent, I finally took a moment to take stock of myself. Luckily I was relatively unhurt aside from some cuts and bruises, particularly around my wrists and ankles. My jacket, bodysuit and the skin underneath at my right shoulder blade were burned slightly where Shadow had hit me with the Stun Baton. A light healing spell took care of the burn and my jacket was still useable but I mourned the loss of the bodysuit. I had a few spares but those things are expensive. I'd also lost my AR goggles somewhere along with my skateboard, yet more items to place on Shadow and Machine's bill.

Back in my room, I pulled out the bag in the back of my closet that contained my real work clothes. I started with a set of form fitting body armour, basically a full body condom with strategically placed armour plates and kinetically reactive gel pads. Mottled grey cargo pants and a white singlet went on over the body armour with a shoulder holster for my first gun: an Ares Light Fire 70. Unfortunately I'd discovered at the shooting range that my small hands and slender wrists really weren't built to handle the recoil of a heavy or machine pistol. The Light Fire was reliable and I was able to get the version that came with the silencer and a red-dot sight attached to the top rail. Best of all, the thing weighed only two kilograms loaded with caseless explosive ammo.

Luckily the body armour doubled as socks, so my steel-capped combat boots went straight on over the cargo pants. A Dikote™ treated ceramic survival knife went into the sheathe in my left boot. Dikote™ is a wiz chemical process that coats a blade with a fine layer of diamond, making it both stronger and unbelievably sharp. With the knife secure, I threaded my tactical belt through the loops in the cargo pants. On the belt went my commlink, a small torch and spare clips for the Light Fire. A pair of Shock Gloves went on over my hands to literally add a bit more power to my punches along with some forearm guards for blocking. A scarf and gas mask went on around my neck, two items that weren't unusual on the street in the age of rampant pollution, overcrowding and disease scares. Lastly, I pulled on my armoured Securetech hooded leather longcoat, which reached my knees and concealed the shoulder holster.

Taking my tactical backpack out of the closet, I took my Ingram Smartgun out of the duffel bag and stuffed it inside along with the clips and flash grenades. Getting my katana in there was impossible but I had a plan for that. These days, I kept the weapon focus in a long postal tube meant for large artist's designs, so I simply strapped that to the side of the backpack and shouldered the whole thing. Finally, I found myself standing there loaded for bear, staring at the amulet I'd pulled from Sparky's dead fingers. After a moment's consideration, I slipped it over my neck. I needed all the help I could get.

With that done, I linked up to the Matrix and made a call to an old friend. Foresight answered after a few seconds. "Hoi, chummer, what's up?"

"Foresight, I need a no-frills car with a decent autopilot. Renting the car would be a better option if available. I need it ASAP but I'd appreciate it if you kept the price gouging to a minimum."

"Let me look at my portfolio... you in hot water chica?"

"I've had better days."

"Wires are buzzing about a shootout between the Knight and the Triads in your neck of the woods... care to comment?"

"I've discovered that I'm allergic to hot lead accelerated beyond the speed of sound."

I thought I'd get a laugh but there was nothing but dead silence on the line for a few moments. "You wouldn't know what happened to a boy going by the handle Sparky would you?"

Pausing, I considered my answer carefully. "That sounds like paydata."

Foresight snorted. "All right, I'll knock some off the price of the goods."

"Fifty percent," I offered. We settled on twenty-five. "Sparky was dead before I woke up," I explained, "I found him stuffed in a fridge like a rag doll."

More silence, which was worrying. "There are some people who'd like to know more about Sparky. He had family, scan?"

My mind raced, trying to work out what he was saying. "I'm guessing you're talking about a gang."

"Go-gang called the Road Rippers," Foresight confirmed, "Sparky's big brother Cold Eyes is on the warpath with his crew tearing the strip apart looking for the guys that were dossing at Sparky's autoshop."

"Can you set up a meet?" I asked cautiously. "I'm willing to swear on whatever he wants that I had nothing to do with Sparky's death. Hell, I'll take a polygraph to that effect."

"Do you know where Sparky's friends are?"

I considered my answer carefully. "I'm on my way to find a wannabe 'runner called Raven and her girlfriend Madeline, they were some of Sparky's friends. The other two are dead, I got them out of the firing line and they turned on me. Now they're ghoul chow."

"I believe you," Foresight sighed, "but Cold Eyes is out for blood. If he can't geek the ones responsible, he's going to settle for the next best thing."

"Then tell him I'm willing to give him the one responsible on a silver platter. I was kidnapped by these assholes; we've both got something to prove."

"I'll see what I can do and I'll get that gear to you. If you want my advice, if you've got any friends you'd best call 'em in."

Hanging up, I took his advice immediately and called Beth. Unlike Foresight, her answer wasn't so prompt, it took her a full minute to pick up and when she did she sounded annoyed. "Naomi, I'm kinda busy right now...."

"Sorry, Beth, I'm in trouble and I need backup," I interrupted quickly, taking the wind out of her sails. There was a long pause before I heard her cupping her hand over the receiver and screaming "Frag!" at the top of her lungs. "All right, all right, I've got your back. Where? And do you want me to call Vallerie?"

"No," I answered, sorely tempted. "I don't want to risk bringing the Angels into this; it's already escalating out of control. I've got a car coming; we can link up on the way. Sorry if I interrupted a big date or something."

"Just tell me where," she growled, showing off her orkish temper.

We arranged to meet up at a Stuffer Shack on the way to Jean Phillip's bisculpting practice downtown. Clover gave me a penetrating look when I wandered back into the living room. "Where'd you get all that gear?"

"I've been coding at night," I explained with a shrug, "earned enough nuyen to pick up some essentials.

Sipping her coffee, Clover looked away. "Let me know when you're coming home. If you're not back by morning, I won't be expecting you."

I nodded once before leaving, giving Shadow and Machine one final glare on my way out. Foresight acted fast, I found a tricked out Volkswagen Elektro waiting for me on the curb. Getting in, I ordered the Elektro's autopilot to drive me to the Stuffer Shack.

Beth met me in the parking lot with a couple of hot stomach-fillers leaning against the heavy frame of her refitted Yamaha Rapier. It was vat-grown meat, fungus and soy product but I scarfed it down like it was my last meal. With that done, I was all biz. A quick look at Beth and her bike told me she was ready. In the last year she'd grown like a weed, at seven years old she was now five-eight and as mature as a fourteen year old human. Life in the Penrith Barrens had also left its mark; she was well muscled and athletic in the way that only someone who's grown up fighting can. She also sported a few new scars. I also happened to know she was already sexually active, which wasn't abnormal for a Barrens kid. Orks in particular lack the luxury of time the rest of humanity enjoys.

"How's everyone?" I asked politely between bites of my fake food.

"Angelo caught a bullet," Beth stated matter-of-factly after she finished inhaling her burger, "they're looking at fitting him with a cyberleg. The Lidless Eyes are getting more traction with the younger kids; I think Vallerie and Morork are debating giving Dexter a dirt nap. Otherwise it's biz as usual."

"Sorry if I interrupted your date," I apologized.

She sighed. "Null sheen; sisters before gigolos and all that drek. What you packing?"

"Light Fire, Ingram, couple of blades," I rattled off. "I haven't been able to get a decent backup yet but I can fall back on magic. Hopefully we won't have to draw down on anyone, though; I'd rather resolve everything with a minimum of fuss."

Beth sniffed. "I brought a SPAS-22, a Predator II and a Walther. We seriously need to get you some bigger guns."

Snickering, I held up her wrist next to mine. Hers was twice as thick. "I tried firing a Browning High-Power at the shooting range. I hit myself in the head with the barrel. Don't worry, I'm training."

"Awwww, poor little pixy," Beth teased, her grin showing off a set of large tusks.

Giving her a mock glower, I looked back at my car. "Ok, let's ride. Just follow the car; we'll work out the plan of attack when we know more."

As it turns out, Jean Phillip had some nice digs on the North Shore. The ultra-modern three-story building was made of white ferrocrete and large glass panels with small gardens inside and out. The man himself was obviously working late, there was a receptionist at the desk despite there being no-one in visible in the waiting area that we could see through the windows. The sign on the front door said the place was closed for the night. The building also had its own underground garage, a real boon considering the premium put on parking space in the inner city.

We cased the joint from the comfort of a coffee shop across the road; I sipped a latte while Beth took hers black with nine sugars. "Your call," Beth told me in a low voice.

"Surveillance cameras on all entrances and exits, security guard in the garage, maglocks on the doors, alarms on the windows but from the looks of things very little magical security... piece of piss. Give me a minute."

Flipping my AR goggles over my eyes, I smiled as the landscape around me was overlayed with bright neon signs and streams of data clamouring for my attention. The wireless Matrix was only a few years old and security providers were still getting used to the tech. Initializing my Stealth program, my Matrix Icon reached out to connect to one of the security cameras. Whoever had designed the office's system architecture knew what they were doing however; the cameras were slaved to a 'gateway node' which immediately demanded a username and password. Smiling, I ran my Analyze program over it to make sure there weren't any particularly nasty surprises before hitting the Barrier IC with one of my custom-built Exploit programs.

To an observer in virtual space, I would have appeared to be a shadowy nine-tailed kitsune listening to the barrier with a stethoscope while spinning the dial on a combination lock. That is, of course, only if your Analyse program was more powerful than my Stealth prog, otherwise I was completely invisible. I was in the node in less than a second and suddenly found myself standing in what appeared to be a security office straight out of a trid show with banks of screens displaying all of the camera footage being piped in. Looking around the complex, I got a good idea of the layout, which included an operating theatre where a skinny young woman with black hair was lying strapped to the table. She was unconscious and naked except for the sheet that covered her. A datajack was also visible implanted in her right temple.

In another room there was a brown-haired man in a black suit arguing with a blonde in a grey suit. Unfortunately the security system didn't have a microphone installed so I couldn't hear what they were arguing about but I tagged the man as Jean Phillip and the blonde as Madeline, which made the girl on the operating table Raven. Flicking through the rest of the footage, I found another couple of security guards playing poker in a room barely keeping half an eye on the trideo feed of their surveillance cameras. Getting a picture of the logo on their uniforms, I did a quick browse of the matrix and found that they belonged to Amiston Security Services, a small private firm who pointedly didn't shorten their company name to initials on any of their PR. Closing my browser window, I dug into the guts of the node and left a neat little back door in along with some code that would enable me to control the slaved cameras later.

Opening the only doorway zapped me to another node deeper inside the system. It appeared to be a sterile white hospital room complete with the cloying scent of ammonia hanging in the air. In the middle of the room stood a surgeon next to an operating table and a tray upon which laid a scalpel, syringe and bone saw. Thick rubber gloves adorned his hands and his mask moved in and out like the icon was really breathing. The moment I arrived, he started to scan the room with his silver cybereyes, the irises focusing on different objects like the lens of a camera.

In reality, the surgeon was Grey IC, an intrusion countermeasure designed to fry a hacker's commlink. Its icon looked around because something about my arrival had tripped off its sensors, though it didn't seem able to lock onto me. Chuckling, I hit the IC with a Spoof program to make it go dormant before running Analyse again to read the purpose of the node. I hit paydata when an icon that appeared to be a thick medical textbook appeared on one of the benches. This one was both encrypted and had a nasty Databomb attached that would attempt to scramble the data if anyone attempted to decrypt it without the proper passkey, which appeared as a flask of acid wired to spill over the book. Holding up my hand, my Defuse program appeared on my icon as a pair of tinsnips which quickly cut the wires attaching the Databomb to the book, rendering it inert. My Decrypt program took a bit longer to unscramble the contents, the incomprehensible doctor's scrawl within slowly resolving into a clear sans serif font.

Jean Phillip was keeping 'highly confidential' records of his clients here, which included everything from the dirt he'd dug up on them to the illegal 'ware he'd installed on request. Taking a copy, I my icon flicked through the book as I ran a Browse program to search for Raven and Madeline, both of which gave me hits and both of which were surprisingly empty and unremarkable. Raven's file had a brief bio which detailed her B-grade high school performance and a dead end job selling AR game chips at the department store Madeline was manager of. There were two request forms filed in her folder for biosculpting work, one detailing modifications into a goth bombshell while the other appeared to be intent on altering her into a precise copy of Madeline down to genetic therapy to alter her DNA markers. By contrast, Madeline's file was bare bones, listing nothing but a glowing employment history with A-Mart.

Moving my icon into the hallways, I blended in with the data packets that looked like orderlies wheeling gurneys to and fro between nodes under the watchful eyes of some cartoonish security guards wearing the Amiston uniform. I was able to analyse several nodes without drawing their attention before I discovered my goal: Jean Phillip's personal office node. The ornate wooden doors where closed with what looked like a maglock but I sleazed through the Barrier IC with ease. Inside was a distressingly ultra-modern office, with a white leather chair, glass table, soft white carpets and faintly glowing white walls. It was well programmed down to the feel of carpet underneath my icon's bare feet. Decrypting his personal files was even easier with only a token white Trace IC protecting it. After a minute of sifting through his dodgy books, I copied the lot and cut my connection, my awareness slipping back into my meat body.

"Ok, let's go," I told Beth, knocking back the rest of my coffee in a single gulp. I knew my bladder would make me regret draining the glass later but we needed to look as inconspicuous as possible. Having already paid for the drinks, I led Beth down the road a little before we crossed, doing the sensible thing and watching for cars. Only when we were safely on the other side of the street did I trigger my wiz little Edit program which let me trigger the cameras we might appear in to playback a looped feed of nothing interesting going on at all.

Beth took point as we walked down the steep incline towards the security guard in the box beside the underground garage entrance, mostly out of sight of the street. Spotting us, he got up and adjusted his belt as he stepped outside the protection of the bullet proof glass, seeing nothing but and elf and ork kid possibly needing some directions. The belt looked heavy, laden down with a Ceska vz/120 light pistol, three spare clips, a long reinforced torch and his commlink. "Hey, girls, need some help?" he asked with a smile. I almost felt bad for what was going to happen next.

Smiling, my friend nodded and whipped her SPAS-22 automatic combat shotgun out from under her leather duster and levelled it under the bridge of his nose. "Yeah, you can sit back down and shut up," she growled, pushing him back down into his seat. Wasting no time, I breathed in the mana flowing through the world around me and willed my spell into my hands. A single tap on his forehead rendered him unconscious as my Knockout spell took effect. Beth took a moment to pose him with his arms crossed and his cap over his eyes before we moved on into the garage.

"Must be nice to be magical," she grumbled while I took pictures of the few cars left in the parking spots with the camera built into my commlink. "It's awesome and a pain in the butt," I answered her in a low voice. "Sure, I get to knock someone out with a touch but it takes intense study and meganuyen to get good at it."

"Bitch, bitch, bitch," she muttered, covering her shotgun back up with the duster before following me through the emergency door into the bare concrete stairwell beyond.

Fire escapes are wonderful things when you're entering a building illegally. By law they have to be accessible and always open at least from the inside. With a bit of know-how they're easy to circumvent. Less easy to circumvent is the alarm system that lets security know every time one opens or closes and logs the alarm. Fortunately with their security footage showing nothing on screen but the same old empty stairwell, the two buttheads would probably glance at the screen then go back to their card game if they even noticed the alarm at all.

The stairwell gave us access to all three floors of the building, which left me uncertain of exactly where Raven was in relation to Madeline and Jean Phillip. Playing the odds, I directed Beth to the first floor and let her check the hallway beyond before leading me out. I immediately caught the antiseptic hospital smell of the air as soon as the door was open, the deserted hallways and rooms beyond matching up with the architecture of the building's matrix systems. It didn't take us long to find Raven's room, the girl was still there. What hadn't seen on the cameras was the empty gene therapy tanks where she'd be kept isolated and unconscious for a few weeks while she underwent the transition. Knowing what they were used for and imagining that she might be undergoing such treatment against her free will disturbed me.

Lifting the sheet, Beth gave the girl a cursory examination before pulling the covering back to show me a couple of bruises above her left breast. "Gel rounds, probably a double-tap at close range. Narcojet and DMSO cocktail goes straight through clothes and skin into the bloodstream. She'll be out to it until dawn."

"Great," I sighed, "we can't leave her here either. Help me get these straps off and wrap her up in the sheet."

"I can't fight and drag her ass around with me," Beth protested as she unclipped the wrist straps while I got Raven's feet free.

"I'm telling my car to drive into the garage," I told her while I worked, "take her downstairs and dump her in the front seat. It'll take her somewhere safe, I'll ride with you."

Nodding curtly, Beth wrapped her up and hoisted the girl over her shoulder while I searched the room for her things. Luckily, I found a pile of clothes and a commlink in a white laundry bag marked for incineration, which I gave to Beth to take with her. "You going to wait here?" Beth asked. I shook my head, taking off my backpack in order to retrieve the Ingram Smartgun and jammed a clip into the receiver before cocking it. "Nope," I answered, "I reckon Madeline and Jean Phillip are on the top level. I'm going to ask them a few questions. Don't worry, I've spoofed the cameras, just secure the stairwell and stay in contact."

Nodding again, she quickly opened a channel between our commlinks before heading out with Raven in a fireman carry over her shoulders. The girl might envy my magical powers but there was something to be said about raw orkish strength. I really didn't want to think about her being old and grey when I was in my thirties looking like a twenty-something. Putting morbid thoughts aside, I zipped my backpack back up and crept quietly upstairs.

The moment I cracked open the second floor door I knew I was on the money. I could hear the argument as a low buzz from down the hallway. There were several offices but the prominent corner office had the nameplate 'Dr. Jean Phillip' right there on the false wooden panelling. The argument, however, was coming from the central meeting room which I cursed, considering there was more than one doorway out of the large room. Walking up to the closest door, I tried turning the handle but found it was locked. Unfortunately this time is was a straight up mechanical lock rather than anything electronic, which left me in a bit of a pickle.

With a heavy sigh, I took a step back, hefted the Ingram, flicked off the safety, set the fire selector to single shot and blew the fragging door handle off the fragging door with and explosive bullet. The effect of the small detonation on the plastic door was quite impressive, blowing a big chunk out of it as the bullet slammed straight through and the fragments tore up the table inside. The door itself swung away from me into the room so I took cover in the frame, only peeking into the room with the gun pointed. Inside, Jean Phillip whirled around to stare at the sudden destruction, mouth agape as he was interrupted in mid-yell.

Madeline didn't hesitate. I watched her assess the situation, come to a decision and enact a plan as easy as one-two-three. Flicking her right hand, a set of blades sprang from her wrist as she took cover behind Jean Phillip, wrapping her arm around his neck. Her left hand went for an Ares Predator III which had been holstered at the small of her back under her jacket. She levelled the smartlinked hand cannon at me. Her aim was a little shaky which I concluded was due to her being right handed, which gave me a little bit of an edge if it came to a shootout. "Who the frag are you?" she demanded.

Thankful that she wasn't shooting I obliged her. "Name's Nine Tails. You might not know it but you two drekheads seriously fragged over me and mine."

"Cry me a fraggin' river!" Madeline snapped.

"Uh, Madeline," Jean stammered, his fake French accent slipping a bit as he sweated with her blades pressed against his neck, "please don't antagonize the young girl with the Uzi."

It was an Ingram but I didn't bother to correct him as I lined up the smartlink's targeting reticule on Madeline's head. Not that I was willing to shoot, a submachine gun isn't really accurate enough even with the 'link. "What's with all this bulldrek Madeline? Selling out your team and setting up Raven to take the fall? Genetic surgery's an expensive way to cover your tracks."

"I think the bounty the Triads have out on us will more than make up for the overhead," Madeline growled, "not that I see that this is any of your fragging business, little girl."

"It became my business when your partners decided to hold me hostage," I countered, leaving the word 'bitch' unspoken but intimated in my tone of voice.

"I see," Madeline mused speculatively, "then you know exactly what I've put up with babying those losers. Do you know where Shadow and Machine are now?"

My eyes narrowed. Her tone had suddenly shifted to annoyingly reasonable. "Maybe, why do you ask?"

"Like I said, the bounty the Triads have on their heads is very large; large enough that I wouldn't mind a two-way split."

I ground my teeth together for a moment. "You're suggesting I... we hand over Shadow, Raven and Machine to the Triads. Pin all this business on them; let the Triads have their revenge for the vig?"

"Not to mention the good graces of the Red Dragons," Madeline added. "Triads always need Shadowrunners to do their dirty work. You can't put a price tag on that sort of goodwill."

It took a beat before her slang registered. I'd heard it before. "Well holy frag. Let me guess, Assistant Manager?"

"What?" she asked indignantly.

"That goodwill drek you were spouting just now. I can smell the marketing seminar bullshit from here. You're putting up just as big a front as the other assholes you run with. The sims make it look so simple don't they? Make a break from your old life as a wageslave, learn to shoot a gun, shell out for some chrome and suddenly you're your own boss. Just whizzer ain't it?"

Madeline squeezed her arm tight around Jean's neck, artificial muscles slowly closing his windpipe, her frown turning into a scowl. "What's your point?"

"You're a spoiled rich brat playing shadowrunner," I growled. "You're getting off on the freedom without considering the consequences, selling out your nakama the moment the heat went up. You picked out chumps that would fall for your line of bulldrek and you're reaping what you planted. I'd have to be a fragging idiot to get in business with a backstabbing blowhard like you."

I'll give her this, she kept her cool but her single blink told me my words had hit home. Glancing down again, she took me all in this time, not just my face and the muzzle of the gun pointed her way. Jean was starting to turn blue, unless she wanted him to deal with his dead weight she was going to have to make a move soon. My gut sank when her scowl suddenly turned into a grin. "A kid like you thinks I'm playing? You were right about one thing, dollface, I am a spoiled rich brat. My daddy's money bought me gene surgery to make me fit and healthy, cosmetic enhancements to make me pretty and a corporate university education to make me smarter. His money made powerful friends that got me a cushy job that was all pay and no work. But you know what the best thing he ever bought me was?"

I didn't like where this was going but I was expecting Beth to come around the corner behind the bitch at any moment. All I had to do was keep her talking to buy a little more time. "What's that?"

"Skillwires," she said before whipping her gun at me and pulling the trigger so fast that I didn't get a chance to pull the trigger.

She missed but not by much. The bullet winged the plasticrete doorframe next to my head, biting a chunk of the wall out that ricocheted off my temple. The Ingram went off way too late, I was falling backward already so all I managed to do was put a hole in Jean's shoulder and rip some more in the ceiling. Before I even hit the ground she snapped Jean's neck, shoving him to one side as she broke into a run, moving like quicksilver. My vision swam as I hit the floor, her high-heeled foot coming down on my gun before I could raise it again and I found myself looking down the barrel of her Predator III.

"Well, not just the Skillwires," she admitted. "The Wired Reflexes help too, plus the Muscle Augmentation. From the way you look I'm guessing you're Clover's apprentice, right? The one my stupid 'nakama', as you call them, screwed over? Let me lay some enlightenment on you, dollface, while I decide whether or not to paint the floor with your brains. Working to get to the top is for chumps. The game is rigged from the start, I learned that when I was about your age. I've never been to a shooting range or done martial arts. I've got a couple of chips plugged into my brain that turn me into a fraggin' action star. I never got an MBA either, I just slot another chip at my day job and go through the motions.

You can keep your dusty tomes and weird squiggly runes and all that drek. The truth is you'll never be faster than me, you'll never be stronger than me and, frankly, no matter how big a spell you sling a gun will always be better. I don't get a nosebleed every time I pull a fraggin' trigger. You see, money is the most powerful force in the Sixth World, not magic or any of that drek. That's what the dragons know that everyone else seems to forget. It's 2060, bitch, I can always upgrade my body and mind and let me tell you something. That bulldrek about cyberware chipping away pieces of your soul is just that: bulldrek. My nervous system is a superconductive alloy, my muscles augmented, my bones woven with titanium, the skinlink connecting my gun to the heads up display projected onto my eyeballs is telling me that my bullet will pass right through the centre of your forehead. And you know what? I don't feel any different."

She pulled the trigger and I didn't feel a thing. There was a loud noise and then... nothing. Opening my eyes, I saw Madeline still standing over me, blinking rapidly in disbelief. Feeling an itch, I reached up to my forehead and plucked something hot and heavy from between my eyebrows. Staring at it for a long moment, it finally registered that I was holding a bullet in my hands. The impact with my bare skin had perfectly mushroomed the projectile like it had hit durasteel plating. "What the frag?" I asked rhetorically.

"Sometimes you just need a little help from a friend," a disembodied feminine voice answered me before breaking into a fit of giggles.

"What the frag!" Madeline shouted, keeping her foot on my Ingram as she whipped her gun about the room, trying to spot the invisible intruder. "Clover?"

I considered going for my weapon focus but she was too fast with that gun for me to draw the katana and I wasn't going to count on a second miracle. With the martial arts training I'd been doing, I was sure I could do some real damage to her leg and maybe free the Ingram but I also knew I only had one shot to take her out. Chances were, she'd take my punch with aplomb and try to put another bullet between my eyes. Ditto went for me trying to awkwardly draw the Light Fire from the shoulder holster with my left hand or stabbing her with the combat knife from my boot.

While I was still making mental calculations, Madeline was suddenly hurled ten feet through the office's bulletproof glass, through a plasticrete wall, destroying several pieces of office furniture in her wake before finally leaving a crater in the stronger outer wall of the building. A breath that I didn't know I'd been holding came out in a whoop of relief, my heart hammering against my ribcage. Scrabbling to raise my Ingram, I half-crawled and half-slid around to see what was going on, aiming down the iron sights.

A strange girl had Madeline pinned against the wall with telekinetic force. At first I took her for a changeling, one of the recent victims of the mana surge that came with Haley's Comet five years ago. But the way her pink Sakura-themed yukata floated in an ethereal breeze undermined any idea that her fox ears and nine bushy white tails might be any kind of physical manifestation. Glancing over her shoulder, she flicked her long white hair out of her face with one slender, pale, hand, revealing deep blood-red eyes that seemed to bore into my soul and a vicious fanged smile that made my hands tremble. "I'm sorry, did you want to finish this or will I?"

Looking over her head, I saw Madeline gasping and straining against an adamant invisible force, her gun crushed into scrap. "I don't want her dead," I answered, making an effort to keep my voice steady, "there are people who want to make her answer for the drek she's done."

"Bo-ring!" the spirit sighed in exasperation. "She stole from you, almost killed you a few times. If you don't make sure she's taking that dirt nap now you'll regret it later. You can give them her head if it's really important."

I just stared at the spirit for a long moment. "Where in frag did you even come from? Why are you interfering? Hell, who and what are you?"

"Well, those are good questions," she mused. "For now let's just say that I think you're interesting." I winced when I heard the sound of Madeline's bones snap like wet kindling, her head twisted nearly one hundred and eighty degrees as her body slumped to the floor with limbs sprawling at odd angles. In the blink of an eye, the spirit was kneeling next to me, gently pushing the barrel of the Ingram down towards the floor. "Also, my name is Ibiki and if you tell anyone that I exist, I'll kill them just like her. That includes that cute orc Beth, your mistress Clover... anyone. And in case you've forgotten already: I just saved your life. If I hadn't cast that armour spell on you, your pretty face would have been turned inside out." She emphasised her point by tapping me between the eyes with a clawed finger.

Blinking rapidly for a moment, she was suddenly gone, vanished into thin air. The sound of a fire door being kicked down made me whip around and bring the Ingram up to bare once more but I only found Beth taking cover in the doorway, her shotgun at the ready. "Damn it Beth! You're late!" I scolded, lowering the gun yet again.

"Sorry, Lone Star patrol stopped off at the café," she explained, "took me longer to get the girl loaded than I thought and I couldn't get you on comms."

I cursed under my breath. I should have considered the possibility that Jean would hold a clandestine meeting in a room shielded from wireless traffic. "Ok, sorry... that was a close one." Sighing, my knees were still a bit shaky as I hauled myself to my feet. Turning to the body, I looked down at Madeline's twisted corpse and considered my options.

"Wow," Beth commented, sounding impressed as she looked over my shoulder. "What the fuck did you do?"

"What I had to do," I murmured, feeling a pang of guilt over the lie. Making my decision, I drew the Katana from its sheath. "I think I saw some pressurized canisters downstairs that had flammable written all over them. Be a doll, Beth, and bring 'em up here while I do this."

#

>>>>>[Well. That de-escalated quickly.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>>[I disagree with bringing the Desolation Angels into this.]<<<<<
- Mr. Green

>>>>>[No choice, the Road Rippers weren't paying attention to whose turf they were trashing in their search for answers. Reparations need to be made before this blows up into a turf war.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>>[LOGIN*#$NETRANGER; username=Dragon Master; password=*****]<<<<<

>>>>>[Greetings.]<<<<<
- Dragon Master

>>>>>[Thank you for attending this little gathering. I believe everyone is aquainted?]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>>[We are.]<<<<<
- Mr. Green

>>>>>[Mr. Green, my compliments on your new protégé.]<<<<<
- Dragon Master

>>>>>[Not mine, old man. I am but a humble enabler of her education.]<<<<<
- Mr. Green

>>>>>[I believe the Red Dragon Triad can put her talents to better use than a down-on-her-luck talismonger.]<<<<<
- Dragon Master

>>>>>[Please, this isn't the place for this.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>>[Indeed, we should concentrate on business. My informant in Knight Errant tells me that the case for the robbery of Australia Post, while still open, has been put on the backburner for now and will likely be buried under a mountain of more important cases.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>>[Easy enough when one knows what words to whisper in the right ear.]<<<<<
- Dragon Master

>>>>>[I talked to Cold Eyes. He'll honour the deal as long as Nine Tails does her part.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>>[Yes indeed, though one has to wonder what exactly happened to poor young Sparky.]<<<<<
- Dragon Master

>>>>>[I thought it was you.]<<<<<
- Mr. Green

>>>>>[What makes you say that?]<<<<<
- Dragon Master

>>>>>[A spirit could have twisted him into a pretzel and stuffed him in the icebox with ease. You had the most to gain sending an ally after the thieves who robbed from one of your couriers.]<<<<<
- Mr. Green

>>>>>[Of course, you might also be pointing a finger at me for your own doings. After all, it was part of your business network that suffered a loss due to the robbery.]<<<<<
- Dragon Master

>>>>>[I didn't have any opportunity to set up any sort of sympathetic link to the thieves. Even if I sent a spirit to track them down, I wouldn't have ordered them to snuff the perpetrators. I would have handed their location over to you.]<<<<<
- Mr. Green

>>>>>[Indeed, while I would have sent Ricky Hand to deal with them. Neither of us have the motivation to murder Sparky, even if the fool was simply caught in the crossfire.]<<<<<
- Dragon Master

>>>>>[Sparky's fate is a nonissue. When Cold Eyes found out what he had gotten into, he changed his tune. He knows the way things work and isn't about to go after the Red Dragons just because they did what he would have done in their place. Besides, he holds this 'Madeline' person ultimately responsible. Revenge is served; everyone can get on with business as usual.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>>[Yes, the Penrith Orks can always be relied upon to advocate the status quo.]<<<<<
- Dragon Master

>>>>>[Cutting observations aside, I've been asked to mediate this conversation and such jibes aren't getting us anywhere. The Red Dragon Triad and the Penrith Orks have an accord, is the matter of Clover's apprentice still a sticking point?]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>>[Not if Mr. Green agrees to allow me to handle her training.]<<<<<
- Dragon Master

>>>>>[She's beyond your training, Yun. Stick to grooming Ricky Hand and don't be too greedy.]<<<<<
- Mr. Green

>>>>>[Very well, I'm not about to start a war over one mongrel girl.]<<<<<
- Dragon Master

>>>>>[DISCONNECT:username=Dragon Master; ... Connection Ternimated.]<<<<<

>>>>>[And that, my friends, is the beginning of wisdom.]<<<<<
- Mr. Green

>>>>>[DISCONNECT:username=Mr. Green; ... Connection Ternimated.]<<<<<

>>>>>[So... who do you think really killed Sparky?]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>>[My money's on Nine Tails.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>>[You really think the girl has it in her to do that? Sparky was harmless.]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>>[Sparky was also involved with two kidnappers and was in love with a psycho wannabe street samurai. Just because someone's simple doesn't mean they're harmless. Someone kidnaps you and you have a shot at escape do you stop to wonder if the asshole has family or do you do what you have to do?]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>>[Point taken. So that's your scan? Unfortunate misadventure?]<<<<<
- Morork

>>>>>[I know he's the brother of a friend, dude, but Sparky made some bad choices and the one responsible for them is dead. Cold Eyes can sleep easy.]<<<<<
- Foresight

>>>>>[DISCONNECT:username=Morork; ... Connection Ternimated.]<<<<<
>>>>>[DISCONNECT:username=Foresight; ... Connection Ternimated.]<<<<<

#

'Reknowned Plastic Surgeon Goes Up In Flames' was the title of the digital screamsheet Cold Eyes was reading while still straddling the seat of his motorcycle. The warehouse Foresight had set up for the meet was nice and spacious. It needed to be, there were a few more guests than I'd anticipated. Cold Eyes had insisted on bringing along his crew, the Road Rippers. The Desolation Angels turned out in support of Beth and to bare their teeth at the Road Rippers a little. The Penrith Orks, not trusting either gang, sent a delegation to mediate and Clover insisted on backing me up. To top it off, Ricky Hand just showed up out of the blue, turning an otherwise tense situation into a powder keg waiting to explode.

Getting out of Clover's car, a cheap refurbished Mistubishi Runabout, I took in the gang leader. He was a little under six foot but had packed on the muscle. His cybereyes had a bluesteel coating polished to a blank mirror sheen, leaving them featureless without pupil or iris. He wore a Beretta 200ST at his right hip with a nasty-looking Laser Crescent Axe hooked under a loop from his belt on his left. A red, grey and white synthleather jumpsuit personally customised with spatters of UV paint made him look like part of a crime scene and his sandy hair had been shaved away from both temples to show off luminescent tribal tattoos that circled two chrome datajacks.

Lifting his leg over his bike, he stalked across the intervening space between us to meet me half way in the open space between palettes of soyfood. The heavy waterproof bag I was holding in my right hand was starting to make my arm ache by the time we stopped. I was at least a head shorter than he was, forcing me to look up into his intimidating poker face. "I'm sorry about your brother. I would have delivered Madeline alive if I could have," I told him truthfully, trying not to think about the white lie of omission I was making.

He nodded, silently holding out his hand. Lifting the bag with both hands, I placed the handles into his palm. He hoisted it over his shoulder with ease. "Not your fault," he admitted curtly, "it's over." With that, he turned on his heel and stalked back to his combat bike, gunning the engine and leaving without so much as a glance behind him.

Vallerie gave me a nod before joining Beth and the Desolation Angels, getting on her bike and riding off with the rest of the Penrith Orks. When I turned to walk back to Clover's car, I found Ricky Hand talking to my teacher, a black van pulling up behind the car. Walking over with a frown on my face, I tapped Clover on the elbow. "Master? What's going on?"

Colver held up her hand to wave me off. "Not now."

The doors to the back of the van opened and several Triads hopped out. It took everything I had not to draw the Light Fire but after a tense moment Clover popped the boot and the group turned to drag something out. I recognized Shadow and Machine's boots sticking out from inside thickly padded garbage bags as they were dragged into the van. "Clover?" I asked, bile welling in my throat.

"A small recompense," Ricky explained, grinning as he popped some gum into his mouth. "What do you care? They kidnapped you, remember?"

"I told them I wouldn't hurt them," I hissed.

Clover glanced at me. "I didn't promise them anything."

I gave Ricky a flat glare. "What'll you do with them?"

"Don't worry," he chuckled. "We've got a nice little business in refurbished working girls that'll keep them very happy."

"I thought Bunraku parlours were a Yak thing."

That made Ricky laugh out loud. "The Yaks like to do things the old fashioned, legitimate, way. Gives them the illusion that what they're doing is business. Less squeamish clientele prefer our services. We like to take things to the cutting edge."

Some of the Triads came back for Raven's still, packaged, form, placing her next to the boys in the back of the van before shutting the doors behind them. Ricky gave us both a salute before wandering back to the passenger door. "Pleasure doing business with you both; catch you 'round Nine Tails."

I stayed silent all the way home, two voices warring within me. One represented the desire to protect, even drekheads like Shadow, Machine and Raven. The other was the voice of practicality and vengeance. Either way, Shadow and Machine had been fools, not long for life in the shadows. Raven got suckered in by a smooth talker, her only real fault being gullibility. It didn't seem right that the Sixth World had just chewed them up and spit them out... and it was Clover's fault. I had to consider that my compassion was also a weakness. What would I have done with them? Let them go? What if they'd come back? At what point does an enemy deserve death?

But they weren't dead. A shiver went up my spine when I considered their fate. Sure, I might kill someone if it was them or me. I'd try to reduce casualties as much as possible but... people die. When you do dangerous drek, people die. Sometimes there was no choice. Squeezing my hands into fists, I imagined myself squeezing the trigger and killing Madeline and I realized that if I had another chance I'd do it in a heartbeat.

Selling someone in to slave traders, though? That was something else. I could never do that, never, and it disturbed me that Clover could.

When we finally got back home, Clover stopped me from walking back to my room. "Lessons start again in the morning."

Nodding in assent, I turned away from her and walked, needing nothing more than a warm bed and some sleep. When I opened the door, however, I knew that I wasn't likely to get either. Ibiki was lying on her stomach on my bed, nine tails waving about in the air. Shutting the door behind me, I dropped my armoured coat over the back of the swivel chair and slipped off the Light Fire in its shoulder holster.

"You seem upset," Ibiki observed.

"It's nothing," I mumbled.

"Liar. Not that I mind."

Taking a deep breath I tried to centre myself. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"I'm anywhere you want to take that little trinket of yours," she pointed one clawed finger at the magatama hanging around my neck.

Grabbing the jewel, I ran my thumb over the smooth surface. "So what? You're bonded to this stone?"

"As you are, as we are. Love the nickname by the way, Nine Tails. It suits us."

"So it's us now?" I asked incredulously.

Rolling over, she rose gracefully to her feet, circling me like a shark as her tails twitched behind her. "Of course, you've been paying attention to your teacher's lessons haven't you? A Free Spirit requires...."

"Karma," I finished her sentence. "You require karma in order to evolve but you can't gain karma for yourself in the usual manner."

"Well, that's true for most Free Spirits at least," she said, giving me a little shrug and a fang-filled grin. Do you acknowledge that I saved your life?"

"Sure," I answered, shrugging back, "but as far as I'm concerned you did that on your initiative. I'm grateful but...."

"Not indebted," she finished for me. "Agreed, I saved you for my own reasons, not the least of which being that I was interested in you. I admit that I wasn't being entirely altruistic so holding you to a pact on that basis would be tasteless of me. Besides I much prefer entering into a mutually beneficial relationship with my partners."

Both my eyebrows shot up. "Partners?"

"I wouldn't want to give you the wrong idea by calling you my mistress," she snickered, "though that might imply that I'm willing to take your orders which I am not. Partners implies more of quid pro quo relationship does it not?"

"Sure," I answered. "Why'd you kill Sparky?"

"That lump of wasted flesh was attempting to steal my magatama."

I blinked and shook my head. "No... that can't be right. There's no way he could have known...."

"He was awakened," Ibiki whispered, leaning in close to my ear, her hands resting on my shoulder. "Not the brightest spark was Sparky, a fact that prevented him from ever being successfully tested for talent. But Madeline, she was perceptive, saw the signs and seduced him in secret where Raven couldn't see."

My mind ticked over, putting together the facts. "Between them they convinced the other three to knock over a courier full of magical goods."

"Sparky didn't know much magic but he did have a reasonable grasp of a rudimentary hypnotic suggestion spell. He knew my magatama was special the moment he saw it and resolved to steal it for Madeline, just as planned."

"They'd frame the other three for the crime and run away with the nuyen."

"Madeline was going to ditch Sparky in an actual ditch of course," Ibiki purred. "Young fools, one does not frag with magic that they do not understand fully."

"And to think I was feeling sorry for Sparky," I muttered angrily. "How'd you know all this?"

"I know a very useful Mind Probe spell," she explained, "Nathan McArthur." I froze, balling my hands into fists so tight I barely felt my nails bite into my palm. Giggling, Ibiki wrapped one of her tails around me, leaning closer. "Don't worry, it's not like I'm about to announce your secrets to the world. We're going to be good friends you and me, I can tell already."

"Somehow I doubt that," I snapped but when I turned to look at her she was gone. Gritting my teeth together, I turned and punched the wall, leaving a small dent and giving myself a set of raw knuckles.

Madeline should have killed me. I should have opened fire when I had her dead to rights before she even knew I was there. I should have confirmed that Beth was en route before engaging. As much as Ibiki claimed I didn't have a debt to her the only reason I hadn't hurled the necklace into a river was because I'd be dead if it wasn't for her. I needed to do better, I needed to be better.

I took that thought with me into my nightmares.


The statement in my signature is false.

[Updated on: Tue, 11 February 2014 02:07]

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